Hospital seeks $5 million levy

"Hoping Whidbey Island voters support a plan to expand patient services, Whidbey General Hospital's board of commissioners approved a $5 million bond issue Monday night for the Sept.19 ballot.If passed, the bond would fund an expansion project that board members and hospital administrators have been planning for more than two years and hope to begin in early 2001.The expansion would add 6,000 square feet to the hospital and provide for remodeling 20,000 square feet of existing space. It would include expanding a number of departments at the hospital: the outpatient cancer center, or MAC clinic; the emergency department; physical rehabilitation services; cardiac rehabilitation and some pediatric services; and diagnostic Imaging services to include additional X-ray and MRI scanning.The need for expansion is being driven by a growing island and patient population, according to hospital chief executive Scott Rhine.The island population has almost tripled since 1970 when the hospital was built, Rhine said, In terms of impact to the hospital, we have small waiting areas that offer patients little privacy to talk with their doctor or nurse privately ... and a curtain doesn't provide the privacy we feel is desired. That's really a key point for expansion of cancer rahab.Citing another example, Rhine said increased demand for the hospital's cardiac rehabilitation services overcrowded the space it shared in the physical therapy section of the hospital.Because of the exercise equipment and the need for a classroom setting, we needed to relocate. We were having to use the lobby and the chaplain's office for consultation areas and classroom space, Rhine said. At present, a former board room is being used.Rhine's concerns are borne out by hospital records.Between 1995 and 1999, visits to the medical ambulatory care unit almost doubled, from 2,519 to 4,371. During that same period, visits to the cardiac rehabilitation department more than doubled, from 757 to 1,896.Money for the bond will come from property taxes in the amount of 26 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.But hospital administrators - mindful of Whidbey voters' recent predilection for passing tax-limiting initiatives over school levies - stress the hospital's new bond would not increase the current level of property taxes allocated to the hospital district.There's no question that levies are just not popular, whether for hospitals or schools or public property, Rhine said. No one likes to see more taxes, but at the same time the levy amount we're asking people to continue through this vote ... will decrease over time as property values go up.According to hospital chief financial officer Doug Bishop, the hospital receives about $1.2 million annually from a combination of bond issues originally passed in 1985 and 1989. What we're doing is replacing a bond issue that's expiring, Bishop said, resulting in no new additional taxes - just continuing the current level of taxes ... and as property values increase and new construction takes place, the tax would decrease.Bishop projected that if property values and construction increase by 5.5 percent each year, the assessment will drop to just less than 20 cents per thousand. Historically, the hospital board has come to voters every eight to 10 years for bonds to finance hospital additions or remodelling projects.Rhine said he's hopeful voters will see a need to pass this one. Every public organization feels that their request for levy support is important and we're no different, Rhine said. We feel these (patient services expansion) projects are focused on patient services, and are needed to provide services to a growing population."

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