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Posted on Jan 21, 2015

County’s opposition to Gorge tax blindsides QVMC

Local officials are at odds over a proposed bill in Olympia that would allow counties to put a $1 surcharge on outdoor amphitheaters to pay for emergency medical care.

Quincy Valley Medical Center says non-paying patients transported to its emergency room from concerts at the nearby Gorge Amphitheatre have caused it serious financial issues.

At the center of a dispute that arose this week is an email authored by Grant County Commissioner Carolann Swartz and signed by the three commissioners. The email states that the bill, known as the Rural Amphitheater EMS bill, is “currently being resolved locally.”

“Local efforts to solve the issues are working and continue to improve conditions for concert attendees so we are questioning the need for a state mandate to solve a local problem,” the email states.

Swartz, in a telephone interview, explained she questions why a state mandate is needed to solve a local issue. She called the legislation “heavy handed” and “anti-business.” But that doesn’t mean she’s opposed to helping out the hospital and fire district, she said.

“I’m only opposed to the idea that we need to have a statewide bill to solve a local issue,” Swartz said.

Swartz composed the email after the county received a telephone call from a state department, asking for more information for the hearings. She then ran it past her fellow commissioners before sending it to committee members, she said.

“Once you put it in a state bill, what’s it going to do? What are the ramifications?” Swartz asked. “(The bill) was premature and I would love to see this thing solved locally.”

However, local hospital officials and city leaders say they were blindsided by the commissioners’ email that was sent three days before the first hearing on the bill. They say they first learned of the email opposing their efforts while testifying in support of the bill on Friday in a hearing before a House committee.

Quincy Valley Medical Center CEO Mehdi Merred claims the commissioners’ email not only had misleading statements about the hospital but it also violated open meetings laws.

“Upsettingly, your letter contains misinformed statements about Quincy Valley Medical Center,” Merred fired back in an email to commissioners. “More disturbingly, your official statement (the three of you signed as Grant County Commissioners) seems to violate the Open Public Meetings Act, as we can’t find any Grant County Commission’s public meeting with a listed agenda in which concerns about the HB1009 were discussed.”

Sponsored by Rep. Matt Manweller (R-Ellensburg) in the House as HB1009 and Sen. Linda Parlette (R-Wenatchee) in the Senate as SB5000, the proposed legislation would impose a $1 surcharge on admission tickets to concerts and festivals held at outdoor amphitheaters in rural communities. The legislation defines a rural amphitheater as an outdoor amphitheater with a capacity to accommodate more than 10,000 people at one time in a county with less than 150,000 people.

At this time, only the Gorge Amphitheatre qualifies for the legislation; the bill was drafted with the Gorge in mind because of ongoing concerns raised by the Quincy hospital that some concert-goers treated there are not paying their bills.

Hospital officials have said that in 2013, concert-goers created $400,000 in uncompensated care and additional expenses, which represents about 25 percent of the hospital’s bad debt that year. In 2014, the hospital recorded $185,000 in uncompensated care and $45,000 in expenses related to caring for concert-goers, according to the hospital.

The Rural Amphitheater EMS bill would allocate 65 percent of the proceeds generated by the surcharge to the local hospital district and the remainder distributed to a fire protection district.

Live Nation, the owner of the Gorge, reported in a study completed earlier this year that more than 1.4 million people attended 60 concerts and festivals at the Gorge during the past five years. Those numbers include 387,732 people in 2013 alone.

By those numbers, the proposed surcharge would generate $252,000 for the hospital and about $135,000 for Grant County Fire District No. 3.

During this past week, a contingency of Quincy representatives traveled to Olympia to testify in favor of the bill. Joining Merred at the hearings were Scott Cave, a lobbyist for the city; Pat Boss, a lobbyist for the Port of Quincy; Alicia Shields, chief of nursing at the hospital; and Don Fortier, chief of Grant County Fire District No. 3. Testifying against it were Danny Wilde, general manager of the Gorge, and Chris Marr, a former state senator from Spokane now representing Live Nation.

Shields testified that the rural hospital’s three-bed emergency room expands to nine beds and six observation beds during some concerts. Shields also spoke of the types of injuries the hospital is treating concert-goers for, from drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning to broken bones and dehydration.

During one concert this year, the hospital treated 54 concert-goers, 32 of whom had drugs in their systems and 12 of whom were under 21 years old, Shields said.

Chief Fortier spoke of not being able to get volunteer firefighters to respond to the Gorge because they have been kicked and spat upon in the past. If the bill were passed, monies from the surcharge would be used to train for a disaster at the Gorge, increase incentives for volunteers to respond and to potentially build a satellite station, he said. At this time, the nearest station is 7 miles away, Fortier said.

Boss stressed to committee members that the bill does not require county commissioners to collect the surcharge; however, it does empower them to take action at the local level if they choose to do so.

On the other side of the issue, Wilde asked why the Gorge was being singled out. Visitors to Sunland Estates and Crescent Bar, as well as travelers along Interstate 90, contribute to the busy summer season at the hospital as well, he said.

“We seem to get singled out, and this bill as written only applies to us,” Wilde said. “I challenge you to identify which other counties and which other amphitheaters this bill applies to.”

The hospital’s patient numbers show there were several concerts at the Gorge this year where no one was treated at the hospital, Wilde said. Hospital numbers also show that 334 concert-goers were seen in the hospital’s emergency room in 2013, Wilde said. That number went down to about 180 after the Gorge instituted some changes on site, including more hydration stations and an expanded medical team, he said.

Those 2014 numbers indicate concert-goers represent 0.5 percent of the visitors to the emergency room, said Marr, who called the bill a “rush to pass a new tax.”

Both Marr and Wilde cited that the commissioners are against the bill. Wilde also pointed to the $2.2 million maintenance and operations levy that hospital district voters did not pass in November. Voters told the hospital to sort out its own finances, Wilde said.

“We kind of feel the same way,” he said. “Don’t put it on us. Sort your own finances out.”

Legislators did take notice of the conflict between the two sides, most notably the commissioners’ concerns.

At the Senate committee hearing, Sen. Brain Dansel of Republic said it would be “a little awkward to pass bill, knowing that the only people it would affect in the entire state of Washington would just turn it down.”

“I don’t see the sense in passing a bill that we know they are going to say no to,” Dansel said. “It looks like they are going to vote it down.”

Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn, committee chairwoman, suggested the issue needs to return to Grant County so local leaders can work out a solution with county commissioners.

“What we have here is a bill that’s going no place,” Roach said.

Both bills remain alive in their respective committees. Only one committee needs to pass its respective bill for it to continue on in the legislative process.

This past week has hurt Grant County legislatively, Cave said. When legislation is before lawmakers, legislators expect communities to show they have worked through their issues and found a reasonable solution, Cave said. They do not want to see discord, he said. Local legislators may be wary when they have to work with the Quincy community in the future, he added.

“We’re not giving up at all,” Cave said. “If it doesn’t work out this year, we will bring it back next year.”

A frustrated Merred said he is questioning the county commissioners’ integrity after commissioners did not inform local leaders of its concerns prior to traveling to Olympia. Merred said he wants to see commissioners admit they violated the Open Public Meetings Act, withdraw their statement to the legislators and set a meeting with local leaders to work out a solution.

“We never had an opportunity to address any of their concerns,” he said.

Furthermore, the relationship between the hospital and commissioners has been damaged, Merred said.

“At this point, it is very much strained,” he said.

— By Jill FitzSimmons,

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