Editorial: Bitter pill for health district

What if they gave a hospital parcel tax election and nobody came?

That’s a play upon the famous 1966 “war” question of McCall’s writer Charlotte E. Keyes (who herself borrowed it from a Carl Sandburg poem) – but the song remains the same.

What if the expected outcome of an event is altered by lack of participation in the event?

Well, you simply hold the event again and get more people to come. That’s the strategy the Sonoma Valley Health Care District is taking in placing on the June 6 ballot essentially the same hospital parcel tax renewal-and-increase that narrowly failed March 7, despite no organized opposition or opposing ballot statement. That proposal, Measure B, sought a 5-year extension of the hospital parcel tax, increasing it from $195 a year to $250, or 28 percent.

The measure would raise about $3.85 million per year for a hospital that would likely finish about $1 million per year in the red if the parcel tax didn’t pass.

In its “at first you don’t succeed” attitude toward a previously unsuccessful initiative, health care district officials are considering three important factors:

1) The number 150. That’s about how many votes Measure B was short of reaching its necessary two-thirds voter approval to pass. That’s not an insurmountable number of votes to catch up.

2) According to the county registrar of voters, the parcel tax received 6 fewer “no” votes last week than it did when it passed in its current $195 guise in 2012. However, its deficit in “yes” votes from five years ago was a whopping 2,400. So, it wasn’t that so many more voters were against the parcel tax, it’s that there were far fewer supporters.

3) The deficit in total number of votes between this year and 2012 is 2,418 – about the same as the deficit in “yes” votes.

These factors suggest the possibility that parcel tax supporters simply didn’t vote – and, if district officials can raise their ballot-box numbers by a small fraction, the tax would pass easily.

It’s a strong possibility. But it’s not the only possibility.

There’s also the chance that supporters and critics of the parcel tax stayed home in equal droves – and that support for the tax really is hovering around 65 to 67 percent. The poll numbers didn’t suggest that, but polls have been off base in recent years with more frequency and greater variability. (See: Sonoma County roads tax of 2015.)

What isn’t debatable is that there was genuine voter malaise surrounding the March 7 ballot – only 28.9 percent of registered voters cast ballots last week for Measure B and/or Measure A, the countywide pot-cultivation tax. A similarly small ballot in March of 2012 found a far healthier 49.1 of registered voters in the Sonoma Valley Health Care District casting their ballots.

So if the majority of registered voters who stayed home March 7 are previous supporters of the parcel tax, the key question is: why didn’t they vote this time?

Several factors were likely at play: voter burnout following an ugly presidential election; expectation that the parcel tax would pass as usual; the additional $55 is too steep; a greater lack of urgency from hospital supporters.

It’s the latter that health care district officials should be most concerned in addressing in the short time between now and the June election.

Bill Boerum, a member of the Sonoma Valley Health Care District board and also its squeakiest wheel, says voters are “tired of supporting an enterprise which consistently loses money, month after month, year after year.”

No one denies finances are extremely tight for SVH – its aging demographic means the district relies on a greater percentage of Medicare customers, while federal reimbursements for those customers continue to diminish. It ain’t easy being a quality mid-sized suburban hospital these days.

Still, the district needs to win back a lot of those votes that vanished in the last five years. That doesn’t mean it suddenly has to find some revenue-generating magic bullet that will put the hospital in the black – that munition probably doesn’t exist.

But district officials should better strive to demonstrate and promote the steps it is taking to narrow the financial gap, so that the message is one of positivity, problem solving and innovation. With Measure B, a certain amount of voters heard a different message – yes, we have a financial plan: the parcel tax.

In fact, the Measure B result may itself be the most important message delivered March 7.

Like a wise patient eager to understand a thorough diagnosis, good or bad, SVHCD should be saying, “Give it to me straight, doctor. I can take it.”

Because district voters likely just did.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.