Whidbey General Hospital leaders scuttle February bond election

Whidbey General Hospital officials have decided to hold off on sending another bond proposal to voters.

At a Monday night meeting, hospital commissioners unanimously reversed their previous decision to place a $50-million proposal to expand the hospital on the ballot next February. It would have been a redo of the bond that failed to reach the 60 percent supermajority in a May 17 special election this year.

Hospital CEO Tom Tomasino cited the troubled economy, the hospital’s poor reputation in the community and inadequate coverage by local newspapers as the reasons for delaying the election. He said the hospital has made great strides in trying to improve care and has won numerous awards.

“We’re just not getting the coverage we had hoped for in the press,” he said. “Our community is often unaware of what we’re doing in the hospital.”

Tomasino pointed out that the majority of voters, a total of 55 percent, voted in favor of the bond proposal in May, though it failed to reach the necessary 60 percent. He said South Whidbey voters were overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal, while North Whidbey voters were more reluctant.

“On the north end of the island, they have more health care choices than in the south,” he said. “That probably played a role.”

Tomasino also discussed a series of bond measures that have failed on the island, as well as the growing poverty. He said the hospital has experienced a 65 percent increase in uncompensated care since 2008.

“Our local economy is feeling it,” he said.

Tomasino didn’t return a call for comment Tuesday morning.

Under the proposal rejected by voters, bond proceeds would have paid for construction of a new wing at Whidbey General Hospital consisting of 39 single-patient rooms, along with space to expand existing hospital programs. If the bond has passed, it would have cost homeowners an estimated 34 cents per $1,000 assessed value for 26 years.

The commissioners briefly discussed the logistics of placing the measure on the 2012 general election ballot, but they decided not to set any specific date for the eventual election.

“Give us time to work with the community,” Tomasino said. “Give us the time to work on our reputation.”

The commissioners all agreed, though some reluctantly. Commissioner Grethe Cammermeyer said she understands people’s unwillingness to increase their taxes, however small, because “it’s just another drain” in hard times.

On the other hand, the needs of the aging facility are real.

“We’re caught in a Catch-22,” she said. “We end up having to charge more because we don’t have taxpayer support and it may drive them away because we’re more expensive than other hospital. We’re caught in an untenable situation.”

Commissioner Roger Case proposed expanding the bond to $60 million to fund an improved clinic on South Whidbey. He said there’s a real need for an efficiently run “rural health clinic” on the south end.

Likewise, Cammermeyer said maybe they should also consider improvements to clinics on North Whidbey, which are very crowded. She said people might support the bond if they felt “something was being done for them also.”

In an interview Tuesday, Anne Tarrant, president of the board of hospital commissioners, said she doesn’t “personally agree” with Tomasino that the hospital has a poor reputation, though she feels that newspapers have not covered positive news at the hospital very well. She said the commissioners plan to make changes in the hospital’s public relations and marketing programs; she said no staffing changes in the public relations department have been proposed.

Tarrant said a leadership team made up of commissioners and hospital administration will likely meet in October to begin making plans about the bond and discussing ways to improve communication with the public.


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