Commissioners of the Vashon Health Care District agree that it’s too soon to even estimate how much the district will tax islanders next year to help pay for primary care services.
The consensus came about at the last meeting on Feb. 19, when it was disclosed by one of the commissioners that the five-member board had received an email on Feb. 14 from Elaine Ott-Rocheford, the executive director with the Vashon Park District.
The email, which Ott-Rocheford shared with The Beachcomber, inquired “if a collective decision has been made for a ‘ballpark figure’” with regards to the hospital district’s levy rate, which the Vashon Health Care District board of commissioners can set starting next year. Per state law, the commissioners can set a levy of up to $.75 per $1,000 of assessed property value. If they want more, voters would have to approve.
Ott-Rocheford also asked commissioners if she could assume that $.45 per $1,000 of assessed property value was still the “likely outcome” when the commissioners decide on a levy rate. That figure was floated last year by people involved with Protect Vashon Healthcare, the campaign in favor of the ballot measure establishing the island’s hospital district.
Ott-Rocheford concluded her email putting the situation in perspective, saying that assuming other taxing districts, like county roads and libraries, are able to raise their levy rates next year, the results would “proration us out of existence.”
Ott-Rocheford was referring to pro-rationing, which is what happens to taxing districts’ revenue if the combined amount levied exceeds $5.90 per $1,000 of assessed property value. State law doesn’t allow these districts, including Vashon parks and health care, to levy any more than a combined amount of $5.90.
In the closing of her email, Ott-Rocheford wrote to health care district commissioners, “the sooner we know how deeply we will be hit, the sooner we can plan to protect the island’s park and recreation services without interruption.
“Hence, the reason we need to know, as soon as possible, the intent for the Health Care District’s rate (a general sense is good enough!),” she wrote.
Health care district response
At the Feb. 19 meeting, Vashon Health Care District commissioner Eric Pryne mentioned Ott-Rocheford’s email and explained he does not think a levy estimate could be made now because they don’t have a budget for 2021 or a line item with a subsidy for a health care provider.
The commissioners agreed that the board’s president, Tom Langland, should write back to Ott-Rocheford. Langland seconded that suggestion.
“I agree. I don’t think we can speculate,” he said. “I’ll go in, apologetically, and just tell them we don’t have that information.”
In an interview with The Beachcomber, Langland said while he wishes he could answer the Vashon Park District’s inquiry, he’s also aware of the responsibility his district has to voters.
“We have public trust, too, and the public’s made it clear they want this body to protect and enhance health care and if we start throwing out low-ball numbers because we love the Park District — which we do — it might be irresponsible,” Langland said. “So our answer to them is going to have to be ‘We don’t have a number. I wish we did.’”
Commissioner Don Wolzcko added that if a levy rate estimate were given now, “We’d needlessly worry them [voters] for something that may never come to be.”
“This is probably going to change six different times between now and when we actually do it,” Wolzcko said.
Langland noted the previously estimated levy rate by Protect Vashon Health Care of $.43 to $.47 per $1,000 of assessed property value, which campaign officials believed at the time would be able to go into effect without hurting the park district.
“It was going to be tight — I won’t say plenty of headroom — but there was room for them to operate at full budget and for us to operate at full budget,” Langland said.
Even though other junior taxing districts could soon raise their levy rates, Langland said the $.43 to $.47 estimate is not out the window.
“All the time we’ve been doing this, we are hoping we can keep in that range to honor what was presented to the voters,” Langland said.
He stressed that just because the Vashon Health Care District commissioners don’t have specific information on next year’s budget, that does not mean they can’t be thinking about the park district’s needs.
“I think all of the commissioners are of the same mind that we’re always going to keep an eye on the Park District to the best of our ability,” Langland said. “Let’s face it: 80% of the voters endorsed that junior taxing district and we know where our neighbors stand and we’ll respect that every way we can.”
Park District response
In an interview, Ott-Rocheford said part of the reason she wrote to Vashon Health Care District commissioners was that she thought there was a possibility the commissioners had discussed the levy.
“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” she said.
Informed of the commissioners’ reasoning for not estimating a levy rate, Ott-Rocheford understands the Vashon Health Care District still has work to do before announcing one.
“I’m not surprised and I completely respect that they have a process. I just want an answer one way or the other. If it’s ‘I don’t know,’ that’s good enough for me,” she said.
Ott-Rocheford said she sent the email because she is trying to be strategic in helping the Vashon Park District.
“I am trying to plan ahead, but that planning requires that I come back to our elected officials with pretty solid information about how we will be affected,” she said, adding a “ballpark [figure] is all I’m looking for.”
Ott-Rocheford has been in touch with Vashon’s delegation to the Legislature, including Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon and Eileen Cody, because they have worked to help the district escape potential pro-rationing. Fitzgibbon wrote, and Cody sponsored, legislation last general session that would move Ott-Rocheford’s district out of the $5.90 taxing structure and into another for this very reason. It remains to be seen if the lawmakers will sponsor the bill again next year.
Even though the Vashon Health Care District commissioners were not able to give her an estimate, it does not change the course Ott-Rocheford is one of lobbying elected officials to help protect the park district.
“I want to be able to show due diligence. I want to be able to show that I’m not just sitting around making assumptions, that I have spoken to people — people who are in the know,” Ott-Rocheford said. “If I have in writing from the hospital district folks that just flat out says, ‘We’re not ready,’ that’s fine. I want to be able to show that I have taken these steps.”
She touched on the importance of the Vashon Park District and what it would mean for islanders if it was not able to function.
“It means that the community would need to look to other options for maintaining the parks,” Ott-Rocheford said. “I think that having parks and recreational services are, in my opinion, a critical part of a healthy community.”