West Sonoma County taxpayers get signatures for Palm Drive Health Care District pullout

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A petition drive spearheaded by a group of west Sonoma County taxpayers who want to detach from the Palm Drive Health Care District has gathered enough signatures to place the issue before a county commission that regulates district boundaries.

The group, Taxpayers Against Unfair Taxes, or TAUT, claims that over the years, residents along the Russian River corridor have received little benefit from the health care district, which collects about $4 million in annual taxes on nearly 25,000 taxed parcels in 200 square miles.

The district operates Sonoma West Medical Center in Sebastopol — formerly Palm Drive Hospital — and includes most major west county communities, including Sebastopol, Forestville, Graton, Bodega Bay, Occidental and Guerneville.

The separation would involve, among other steps, a review of the district’s governance, as well as its financial sustainability, said Mark Bramfitt, executive officer of the Sonoma Local Agency Formation Commission, or Sonoma LAFCO, which regulates the boundaries of cities and special districts.

Sonoma LAFCO last week notified TAUT that the group had gathered the required number of signatures. The group needed 2,046 signatures from residents in the Monte Rio, Guerneville and Forestville school districts, which make up the area TAUT hopes to detach from the health care district.

The group collected about 2,070 signatures, based on a sampling of 507 signatures conducted by the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters office.

“We’re very pleased that we’ve accomplished our goal for the petition and await adjudication by LAFCO,” said Carolyn Harris, one of three key TAUT members.

But district officials say the detachment effort is misguided.

“I personally oppose it,” said district board president Jim Maresca. “I don’t buy the argument where people say, ‘I use Kaiser so I shouldn’t have to pay for somebody else’s hospital.’ It’s analogous to the argument, ‘I don’t have kids, why should I have to pay for somebody else’s school?’”

Bramfitt said his office will begin work on a municipal services review of the district, an essential document for the detachment request.

The review should be completed by Sept. 7, when the commission is expected to consider the detachment issue at one of its regular meetings, he said.

If the commission rejects the detachment, TAUT has 30 days to appeal and try to get LAFCO to change its position. If the commission upholds a rejection, the issue dies, unless TAUT challenges the decision in court, Bramfitt says.

If the commission approves the detachment plan, voters in the Russian River area would be given the opportunity to oppose the move by organizing their own petition drive, a process known as a protest proceeding.

If such a petition garners signatures from at least 50 percent of the voters in the detachment area, the commission’s decision is revoked. If the protest petition gets between 25 and 50 percent of voter signatures, it triggers a ballot election.

Detachments from special districts are rare, Bramfitt said. The only other Sonoma County case involved a detachment from the Sonoma Valley Health Care District, when the district itself asked that a portion of the district be removed.

“That was removed by the commission and there was no valid protest to stay in,” said Bramfitt. “It’s unprecedented otherwise.”

Maresca, the district board president, said Bramfitt’s office had neither the expertise nor the money to conduct a thorough review. He said hiring a consulting firm with health care expertise to conduct such a review would cost more than the $60,000 Sonoma LAFCO has set aside for outside services.

But Bramfitt said his office has a reserve of $200,000 and about $60,000 available annually for professional services. He said such a review would actually cost between $18,000 and $20,000, and said he has been ordered by the commission to conduct the review in-house.

“I have to satisfy the commission, not the district,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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