Residents oppose tax increase for hospital

Voters against paying more for new hospital, but will support adding on to the current facility

Moffat County residents want a new hospital and they think it should be built at The Memorial Hospital's current Russell Street location.

Those were the findings of a public opinion survey conducted by Dan Jones & Associates. The Memorial Hospital hired the research firm to poll county residents in December. The results were made public Wednesday at two community forums at the Holiday Inn.

Dianne Meppen, a project manager for Dan Jones, conducted the forum and explained the results to about 30 citizens at the 3 p.m. forum. Another forum was held at 7 p.m.

The final slide of Meppen's presentation read: "Based on survey results, DJA recommends a partial replacement hospital at the current location."

In the partial replacement scenario, TMH would build a new facility, in phases, at its current location. It would require Russell Street to be closed. Certain hospital departments could remain in the old building and be reused until money becomes available to add them to the new facility. Those departments would include administrative offices, the warehouse and laundry facilities. The clinical portions of the hospital would be new.

No new taxes would be necessary because the hospital could pay for the partial replacement hospital.

If residents wanted a new facility in a new location, they would need to approve a bond initiative to raise the additional $5 million an off-site facility would require. It would mean that owners of a $100,000 home would pay about $10 in additional taxes annually.

Based Dan Jones' research, such an initiative would fail, Meppen explained. The cost of additional taxes was unfavorable, and respondents expressed that opinion throughout the survey.

When asked directly about new taxes to support an off-site facility, 36 percent of the people polled said they would definitely oppose the measure. Only 27 percent said they would definitely favor it.

Meppen said if the numbers indicated that 60 percent of the people favored the new tax, she would tell the hospital to go for it. But even at 50 percent, Meppen said she would advise that it would take a major battle to pass the initiative. With only 27 percent support, there's really no chance of passing the new tax, Meppen said.

Sue Lyster, chairwoman of TMH's Board of Trustees said she was surprised by the lack of support for such a modest level of new taxes.

Lyster said she recognized that community members are leery of new spending in times of financial hardship, although she held out hope that people would be willing to spend $10 a year for a new hospital at a new location.

"I was hoping the bond question was more widely received," Lyster said. "But it's a bad time to ask for more money."

Concerns about money showed up elsewhere in the survey.

The poll asked what would be the disadvantages of building off-site. "Tax increase," was the No. 1 answer, voiced by 29 percent of respondents. The second-highest disadvantage was also related to cost. Twenty-three percent of those polled cited financial concerns, but didn't specifically say taxes.

When asked about the advantages of building at the current location, the second most popular response was that it would cost less.

While the survey seems to provide a clear-cut answer to the long-debated question of where to build, Lyster said not to expect the board to choose the site and begin the project any time soon.

The hospital's finances did not shine in 2003. Until the board is comfortable with the hospital's financial position, Lyster said she expects the board to wait.

"At this point the financials aren't good enough to make that decision," Lyster said. "It's all revenue driven and we're not in a position to sign on the dotted line."

Ron Danner, a trustee who is the chairman of the building committee, expressed a sense of urgency when the board gathered to discuss the survey results shortly before the community forum.

"We know the timing is critical," Danner said. "We need to make a decision and go forward."

Although the decision will not be 100 percent popular, Danner said the board should act decisively.

Trustee Gene Bryant hesitated. He said he wanted to make sure the board had considered all the options related to the complex matter.

"I think we're getting there," Danner said. "We've certainly done our homework."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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