News

Hospital annexation on Tuesday ballot

By Kevin Hanson

The Courier-Herald

A controversial maneuver by Valley Medical Center to annex property within minutes of the Enumclaw city limits will be decided by this time next week.

The Renton-based hospital is one of the few medical facilities in the state collecting tax dollars to support its operations. It has assessed taxes to property owners within its boundaries for decades, always without much fuss. Even a year ago, when voters approved a measure increasing their hospital taxes 500 percent, not much of a ruckus was heard.

But when news broke in early April that Valley Medical was seeking to dramatically expand its borders, opposition grew fast and furious.

Leading the anti-hospital sentiment were residents of rural Enumclaw, those who reside in areas stretching west toward Auburn and north toward Black Diamond and Maple Valley. At the heart of their argument is a simple message: they don't want to pay hundreds of dollars annually for services most will never seek.

The process

A couple of early developments raised the hackles of the anti-annexation forces. Hospital district leaders submitted the annexation vote as an “emergency” measure to the King County Elections Department and received the county's blessing. Therefore, the timetable was short and no voters pamphlet was distributed.

Second, the initial ballot title spoke only of Valley Medical's desire to expand its boundaries. There was no mention that existing tax rates would be levied against those who might join the district.

Two separate court challenges were mounted, one by Enumclaw businessman Alan Gamblin and the other by political activist Chris Clifford, and a Seattle judge took their side. Judge Dean Lum ordered that language be added to the ballot letting voters know the financial ramifications of their decision.

If the annexation effort passes, newcomers will pay the existing rate of 59 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. That works out $177 annually for the owner of property assessed at $300,000.

The borders

Upsetting Enumclaw-area residents is how far south Valley Medical is attempting to reach, along with the irregular nature of the boundaries. Those skeptical of the hospital's intentions believe lines were drawn to include certain expensive properties - parcels that produce plenty of tax revenues but few potential “no” votes.

The proposed annexation area drops as far south as 424th Street Southeast (east of state Route 169) and 416th Street Southeast (west of 169), but excludes the Krain area.

During a public hearing in Maple Valley, Gamblin complained that he can drive to the Enumclaw hospital in three minutes but it would take him 40 minutes to travel to Renton.

The area under consideration includes the town of Maple Valley and a part of Black Diamond not currently in the hospital district. City councils in both those communities have passed resolutions opposition the Tuesday ballot measure. Also voting against the proposal were the Enumclaw City Council, Enumclaw School Board and commissioners of Fire District 44. Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis has voiced his concerns as well.

Black Diamond councilmembers took things a step further, examining if they can “de-annex” the portion of the city already in the hospital district.

The hospital's side

Valley Medical Center/Hospital District No. 1 has blanketed the area with several mailings.

In one, a letter from the district's five-member board of commissioners points out that boundary lines were originally drawn in 1966, prior to some explosive growth in south King County. Now, boundary lines “no longer accurately reflect the geographic area that Valley Medical Center and its network of neighborhood clinics serve,” the commissioners wrote.

Passage of next week's measure, they added, would result in “a new and expanded urgent care clinic” to treat minor emergencies and offer expanded access to doctors and nurses.

VMC contends the Maple Valley and Black Diamond areas have a “severe shortage” of doctors.

During the public hearing in Maple Valley, hospital representatives also argued the annexation was a simple matter of fairness. Some use the VMC's small clinic in Four Corners and pay property taxes to the district, while others use the clinic and pay no tax.

And, of course, the sniping

Each side has taken the opportunity to make attacks, all aimed at currying public favor.

The anti-annexation forces have made sure everyone knows the hospital is using a “California consultant” to spearhead their campaign.

And Valley Medical representatives have alleged the campaign against annexation is being funded by a “Pennsylvania-based corporate healthcare giant.” That's in reference to Auburn Regional Hospital being owned by an East Coast company.

Further, VMC leaders have gone on the offensive with claims that the battle against annexation might be the result of greed on the part of Enumclaw and Auburn hospitals.

In the end...

When voters go to the polls Tuesday, a simple majority will decide the issue. If the issue receives more “yes” than “no” votes, annexation will progress and district newcomers will be assessed the same rate as those already in the district. The measure has no “sunset clause,” meaning the tax could be assessed forever.

If ‘no” votes are in the majority, the annexation issue dies. Those currently in the district boundaries will continue to pay taxes at the same rate.

Kevin Hanson can be reached at khanson@courierherald.com.

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