Among the decisions Park County voters will be asked to make one week from today is whether to approve a specific purpose sales tax to fund expansions and updates to the emergency room and other portions of West Park Hospital in Cody.
The proposal often has been viewed by Powellites from an “us vs. them” standpoint: Why should people in Powell pay for improvements at the Cody hospital, when Powell Valley Hospital needs many of the same improvements?
But I would ask people to look beyond this selfish reasoning. We're all residents of Park County, and it's important for us to work together to advance worthwhile causes and projects. After all, without the support of many Cody residents (though not a majority), Powell residents would not be enjoying an aquatic center now, and it's likely we will be asking for money for future projects as well — perhaps even a similar building project at Powell Valley Hospital. Park County communities must stop this ongoing community feud and support each other for the good of all.
Others decry any effort to raise money by any form of tax, regardless of the amount or the purpose. I believe this is short-sighted; each proposal should be weighed on its own merit. For most, a 1 percent sales tax is not a budget breaker, and the specific purpose sales tax provides a way to fund projects and facilities for the good of the public that otherwise might go unfunded. It also brings in dollars from tourists who spend money in Park County and Yellowstone, making it a little less onerous for residents, and it ends when the project is paid for.
However, there are some other important factors to consider when voting for or against the West Park proposal, and some of those have been overlooked or downplayed — and even misrepresented — during the discussion over whether to fund the West Park project. Following is my summary of some of those issues.
• The West Park Hospital District is a tax district — formed specifically for the purpose of raising money through property taxes to fund building projects at the hospital. The district comprises Cody and the surrounding area served by the hospital. As with the specific purpose sales tax, any property tax would have to be approved by voters — but in this case, only residents of the district would vote, and if approved, pay the tax for the project.
Some say it would be best to raise the money for the West Park project through a property tax on the district, because the people paying the tax also would be the people who use the hospital's services.
But I think the reasoning should go beyond that. The specific purpose tax is a valuable tool created to fund worthwhile community projects, particularly those without any dedicated funding or methods to pay for them. In my opinion, specific purpose sales taxes should be approved only for important community projects that can't reasonably be funded in any other way. I believe it would have been more appropriate for the West Park board to attempt to raise the money through the district before considering a specific purpose tax proposal.
The reason the board opted to go the specific purpose sales tax route is simple and understandable: By extending the tax countywide, more people pay and the money is raised faster, reducing the amount of interest paid on a construction loan and shortening the wait to begin construction.
• The West Park proposal has been a moving target that, initially at least, came with little or no advance public discussion at a time when other projects already were on the table. When West Park officials first approached the Cody City Council with the proposal, they were asking for a total of $38.5 million. When local government leaders and the public balked at that figure, the project was scaled down and numbers recalculated for lower construction costs. The board also decided to apply $12 million — previously held in reserves for a future building project phase — toward the proposal.
Those changes, combined, whittled the amount West Park needed for the remodel down to $14.2 million. But one could argue they should have been made before the project ever went to the public. It is unconscionable that West Park board members even considered asking the public to fund a $38 million project when they had $12 million stashed away in a reserve account that would have continued to earn interest while taxpayers were footing the bill for the entire project.
• One of the arguments used repeatedly to justify asking for a specific purpose tax to pay for the West Park remodel is, “We don't want to burden our children with a property tax that will take 25 years to pay off.”
That is misleading, if now downright deceitful. True, when West Park initially made its specific purpose tax proposal for $38 million, it would have taken 25 years to pay off the debt with money raised by a property tax on the West Park Hospital District. But now that the proposal has shrunk to $14 million, it would take only nine and a half years to pay it off through that method. Admittedly, that's still about three and a half times longer than the estimated 31-months it would take to raise the money through a specific purpose tax, but it's a far cry from burdening a second generation.
• The bottom line: The proposed remodel of West Park Hospital's emergency room and other areas absolutely is needed. I don't think anyone is arguing with that; I certainly am not. West Park Hospital is a public facility that serves the public, and it deserves public funding, if it is needed; the real question is, what form should that funding take, and who should pay the bill?
Voters need to be informed and prepared to answer those questions when they cast votes for or against the West Park proposal. Make sure to vote one way or another; if you cast a ballot but don't vote on the issue, it counts as a vote against the project.
And, if voters agree to fund the project through a specific purpose tax, we will expect Cody voters to reciprocate if Powell Valley Hospital makes a similar proposal in the future. WPH board members already have said they would support such a proposal.
After all, one way or another, we're all in this together.