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Detachment discussed at Palm Drive health district meeting

Palm Drive Hospital supporters clashed Monday evening with a group of west county taxpayers who essentially want to secede from the district that would partly fund the hospital if and when it reopens.

At a meeting of the Palm Drive Health Care District, several residents of the Russian River corridor said they no longer wanted to pay the district parcel tax for a financially troubled district and a hospital they do not use.

“I don’t mind my taxes going to pay off the bankruptcy, but I don’t feel that I want my taxes going to open a new hospital,” said Chris Aldrich of Forestville.

Aldrich said she voted in favor of the district’s two previous parcel taxes but is now troubled by the hospital’s history of financial trouble, which includes two bankruptcies, last year and in 2007.

Guerneville resident Mark Emmett, president of the board of directors of the Russian River Fire Protection District, publicly said he supported the idea of detachment, the official process by which residents from a portion of the district would remove their parcels from the district’s boundaries.

After the discussion, Emmett called detachment a “common sense” issue. He said the Russian River Fire Protection District has two ambulances at its Guerneville fire station and that it’s easier to get to the new Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital than to the Palm Drive Hospital site.

“It’s just common sense since they built Sutter on River Road,” he said to a reporter.

The detachment concept was met with strong resistance by some members of the public who support reopening the hospital as a facility that serves the entire west county.

“The anti-tax argument, ‘I don’t use it, I don’t want to pay for it,’ is something that I found morally reprehensible,” said Jonathan Greenberg of Sebastopol.

“I’ve heard it come from the tea party. And I’m feeling a real moral aversion to hearing it come from the people in the Russian River.”

Greenberg said that he believes those who favor detachment represent a small segment of the Russian River corridor, not the majority.

Those who support reopening the hospital defended the financial viability of a proposal that would reforge the shuttered hospital into the Sonoma West Medical Center - a 25-bed acute care facility with a bevy of specialty medical institutes that would help cover the cost of inpatient services and a new emergency room.

Gail Thomas, president of the Palm Drive Health Care Foundation, which is currently championing the Sonoma West Medical Center, warned that emergency rooms at Santa Rosa hospitals have been greatly impacted by the closure of Palm Drive Hospital.

She said she and her husband recently had to go to Sutter’s new emergency room on separate occasions and both had to wait hours to be seen by a doctor.

Thomas said the recent election of two district board members who supported reopening the hospital is proof that west county residents want the hospital back. “That indicates to me that the community as a whole, present company excepted, is in favor of reopening the hospital,” Thomas said.

Changing the district’s boundaries is a complicated process that would have to go before the Sonoma Local Agency Formation Commission, which regulates the boundaries of cities and special districts. The move begins with a signature petition signed by at least 25 percent of voters in the area that seeks detachment, and it could ultimately require an election vote.

The boundaries of the hospital district cover most of the west county and include all of its major communities, including Sebastopol, Occidental, Graton, Bodega Bay, Forestville, Guerneville and Jenner. It is made up of nine west county school districts and encompasses roughly 200 square miles,

A core group of River Road residents have already defined the boundaries of the section of the district they want “detached” from the existing district ?borders. They want to detach people who live in the Guerneville, Forestville and Monte Rio ?school districts.

They argue that they are not part of the Sebastopol community and therefore reap no benefits from the taxes they contribute to the hospital district.

The group is calling on the district board to hold public hearings in the Russian River area to discuss “detachment.” At Monday’s meeting, the board agreed that an informational meeting would be held somewhere in the Russian River community.

That meeting would include legal experts who would discuss such issues as whether or not voters who detach from the district would have to continue paying a parcel tax to pay off the district’s outstanding debt from previous bond measures.

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