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March 16, 2010 4:33 am

West Park, landfill garner support in county

Written by Tribune Staff

Powell considers west Park 1-cent tax proposal

It appears increasingly likely that Park County voters will be asked to consider reauthorizing a temporary 1-cent capital facilities sales tax.

But which project(s), how much money and when voters will be asked to weigh in, remain open questions.

“It's kind of a muddled mess right now,” said Cody Council President Sam Krone at a roundtable discussion between Cody, Meeteetse and Park County officials and the West Park Hospital District Board of Trustees last week.

West Park officials in Cody are seeking a $14.2 million capital facilities tax to upgrade and renovate the hospital's emergency room, laboratory, imaging department and admissions area. They were scheduled to pitch their proposal to the Powell City Council on Monday night.

Under West Park's current plan, the hospital would use $12 million from reserves to help fund the $26.2 million project, which would address what the hospital says are outdated and overcrowded facilities. In total, the project would add or renovate more than 110,000 square feet of space.

Before the roundtable talk began last Wednesday, West Park officials gave a tour of the hospital, seeking to demonstrate the need for improvements.

“I'm not a very big fan of taxes, but I look at this as a community issue,” said Dr. Scott Polley during a walk-through of one West Park's exam rooms.

The room features two beds that are separated by just a curtain, creating privacy concerns.

Additionally, according to current hospital building standards, the two-bed room should only hold one patient.

When West Park's emergency room is busy, “We start seeing people in hallways here,” Polley said. He said two to three patients can end up sitting on a bed in the hall, waiting for space to open up.

“In order to move forward, take care of our community, we really need to expand somehow,” Polley said.

Another major component of the project is creating separation between patients and staff and visitors walking into the facility. For example, the hospital has concerns about the wide range of patients that are now routed through the emergency room's waiting area — from children with ear infections, to patients in need of CPR, to the deceased.

At the roundtable discussion, Commission Chairman Jill Shockley Siggins echoed those concerns, describing her experience earlier this year when she took fellow commissioner and brother-in-law, Bill Brewer, to West Park's emergency room with heart problems. (Brewer's health problems have kept him from attending recent commission meetings, including Wednesday's.)

“I sat in the E.R. with him (Brewer) and I saw the things you were talking about today,” Siggins said.

“I want to have a facility that this community can be proud of,” she added.

Other tour participants appeared similarly won over by West Park's need.

“I agree it's really worthwhile, and I agree the timing's right,” said Commissioner Bucky Hall.

“I don't think there's any question about the importance of the project,” said Cody Mayor Nancy Tia Brown.

However, city of Cody officials questioned the need to have West Park's proposal on the primary ballot in August instead of on the general election ballot in November.

Council President Krone said he prefers putting the measure on the ballot in the general election, when turnout is traditionally higher.

“If we're going to tax people, I think we should have as many folks as possibly making the decision,” he said.

West Park trustee Jeff Parsons said he personally would feel a responsibility to vote in the primary election on the potential sales tax.

“I don't understand why people wouldn't vote in the primary,” he said.

Councilman Charles Cloud noted that West Park's proposal initially called for $48 million for a combined landfill/hospital tax, then fell to $31 million for West Park's project by itself. The number fell to the current $14.2 million figure after the hospital board received revised cost estimates for the project and feedback from the community that the tax was too large.

“That (figure) has changed quite a bit in the last six weeks and that was the mistake,” said Cloud, saying he believes the measure should be placed on the general ballot. He said more time is needed to educate the public, and that if it's put on the earlier August ballot, “people will feel we're trying to get one on them.”

The primary reason West Park wants the election sooner than later is to take advantage of low construction prices and interest rates. If approved by voters in August, the board hopes to see construction begin in October. But if it did not pass until the general election in November, construction would likely not be able to begin until the spring of 2011, the board says. At that point, West Park officials estimate, the project cost would be $1 million higher.

“That $1 million really gets me,” said board member Peggy Rohrbach.

“An estimated $1 million,” countered Cody Councilman Jerry Fritz, arguing that a three-month delay between the primary and general election ballot might not make a difference in price, or could even see prices continue to decline.

The West Park board remained uninterested in delaying the measure until the general election.

Commissioner Hall asked what West Park would do if both of those options failed, asking if the hospital had the ability to seek a loan for the improvements.

West Park CEO Doug McMillan said it was a possibility, but dependent on how much debt the hospital board wants to take on.

West Park's Chief Financial Officer, Pat McConnell, said the hospital's ability to borrow would also be dependent on its income, and he noted that the costs would then have to be passed on to patients.

Commissioner Dave Burke, who worked at West Park before becoming a commissioner last year, questioned the hospital's estimates regarding the costs of building an entirely new hospital. He said that, while it seems to make sense to renovate West Park now, he questioned if it made sense to continue renovating rather than building anew in the future. After finishing the improvements currently up for discussion — phase two of a master facilities plan that began with the construction of new physician offices and space at the Cathcart Health Center — West Park plans a third phase where the dining center, patient rooms and its substance abuse treatment center would be re-located.

“You're going to have multiple buildings remodeled that are old buildings,” Burke said. “I really wonder if you really want to continue with a remodel program.”

McMillan has said a new hospital building would cost somewhere between $100 and $150 million dollars.

Burke said the hospital's roughly 300,000 square feet could be reduced by moving to a new building.

West Park board member Melissa Fraser said the hospital looked hard at the options and determined the renovation route was the most fiscally sound.

“Believe me, we had more than just David Johnson (the architect ultimately hired for the project) come in and make a presentation to us,” Fraser said.

In an interview on Thursday, Park County Commissioner Tim French said he will not vote to put West Park's proposal on the ballot for voters. French said that, while the hospital appears to have a need, it's an issue best left to the members of its district.

“I just don't think it belongs on the ballot,” French said, adding, “To me, it's the ultimate in taxation without representation.”

Residents in Powell and the rest of the northeast corner of Park County do not vote for the Cody hospital's governing board of trustees as they are outside the hospital's district.

At its regular Wednesday night meeting, the Meeteetse Town Council endorsed a resolution to put West Park's proposal to the voters. The measure passed with a 2-1 vote, and one councilman was absent.

“We do see your need,” Meeteetse Mayor Andy Abbott had said to the West Park board at the roundtable discussion, adding “We're also very aware of the landfill need.”

Landfill tax

Meeteetse and Powell have both voiced support for a separate $18 million capital facilities tax proposal that would buy down landfill tipping fees and erect a county-wide network of transfer stations.

Park County, in order to comply with federal environmental regulations enforced by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, is closing its landfills in Powell, Clark and Meeteetse to household waste. Because it was the most cost-efficient to bring up to federal standards, the Cody site is becoming the county's regional landfill, but it's still going to cost around $61 million over the next 20 years.

Landfill tipping fees rose 50 percent last year to help cover those costs, and without a capital facilities tax, they will rise 8 percent every five years. Those fees do not include the costs of constructing and operating transfer stations in Powell, Meeteetse and Clark.

As roughly proposed, $15 million of the $18 million tax would be used to buy down the tipping fees while the other $3 million would go toward building transfer stations and buying equipment to help to efficiently collect and haul garbage from Powell, Meeteetse and Clark to the Cody site.

With tourists paying an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the capital facilities tax, Park County taxpayers would ultimately realize a net savings on their garbage bills.

But with both the landfill and hospital projects seeking sales tax dollars, Commissioner Siggins said at Wednesday's roundtable meeting that the community needs to decide, “What is the most important thing that we need?”

She noted that funding is already in place for the landfill, coming from increased tipping fees and some state and federal money.

The county's municipalities see the issue differently.

At the Cody City Council's pre-meeting on Thursday, Krone said he was “shocked by Commissioner Siggins' statement that everything was OK with the landfill.”

The Cody council unanimously indicated that it would support joining Powell and Meeteetse in pitching a landfill sales tax to commissioners.

“I think this is probably the best proposal there's going to be,” said Cody Councilman Steve Miller of the $18 million tax proposal. Miller also said he felt a united pitch from the municipalities to the commissioners was important.

“Regardless of what we do, I think Powell and Meeteetse are going to go forward on this,” added Krone, saying it would be best to work together.

In getting on board, Cody plans to ask that the proposal include money for a kind of recycling transfer station to be constructed at the Park County landfill in Cody. The facility would include a building, roll-out bins and a truck. Cody's public works director Steve Payne said that rough estimates peg the cost of such a set-up, including some operation and maintenance expense, at around $733,000.

“Right now a good portion of solid waste fees are being paid for by the residents of the municipalities,” said Miller, supporting the idea of a capital facilities tax.

“We bear a higher burden,” said Krone.

Cloud suggested that using a solid waste district mill levy could pay for operation and maintenance down the road.

Even if the municipalities can present a united front, Krone said the big question is if the county will support the idea.

Several commissioners have already expressed reservations with aspects of the proposal -- such as the worth of transfer stations and the general idea of using a sales tax to pay landfill costs.

Without a specific proposal in place, French said he doesn't have any firm opinions, but he's generally apprehensive.

“I don't see the point of raising our taxes $18 million,” he said.

To get on the ballot, any sales tax proposal must first get the approval of at least two of the three municipalities and the Park County commission.

If both proposals made it to separate ballots, it's not clear how the questions would be posed to voters. Park County Clerk Kelly Jensen and Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric said the scenario would be the first of its kind in Wyoming.

Potentially, voters could be asked to decide if they want to temporarily up the sales tax to 6 percent, with each project occupying a separate 1-cent tax.

No representatives from the city of Powell attended Wednesday's roundtable discussion, and at the Cody Council's Thursday pre-meeting, Mayor Brown and Councilman Cloud both expressed disappointment.

Powell to consider West Park project

“I was disappointed that they (Powell representatives) weren't there,” said Brown, who had asked for the discussion to be set up.

“We were just asking them to show up for the meeting,” said Cloud.

West Park sent invitations to the roundtable talk to Powell Mayor Scott Mangold and City Administrator Zane Logan, but neither was able to attend. Mangold's radio broadcasting job took him to Casper for the state basketball tournament, and Logan had a previous obligation that he had committed to, he said.

In a phone interview on Friday from Casper, Mangold said he had the impression that the council wasn't necessarily invited. Mangold said he visited with Councilman Jim Hillberry, who did not receive an invitation, and they noted that West Park was due to make its pitch on the project in Powell on Monday night anyway. Hillberry said he would have liked to attend, but he had another commitment and hadn't heard about the meeting until late Tuesday.

“Had I not had a prior commitment, I certainly would have made an effort to be there,” Hillberry said.

If West Park and other officials are upset that Powell did not attend the meeting, Mangold said, they should have picked a day that worked for Powell and invited all of the council members.

At the roundtable discussion, Siggins said that it was important to reach out to Powell.

“I don't want you to think we haven't reached out to Powell,” said trustee Fraser.

The West Park board has said that if, in the future, Powell Valley Hospital wanted to pursue a capital facilities tax for their needs, they would be supportive.

The Cody hospital's board asked the Powell hospital board for support on the project, but was turned down.