Assembly won’t reconsider hospital service area boundary move

Voters won’t be asked whether a group of residents between Ninilchik and Clam Gulch should be moved into the Central Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area this October.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly chose not to reconsider an ordinance it shot down at its July 26 meeting to ask the voters during the October election whether to move the common boundary between the Central Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area and the South Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area about 12 miles to the south, a move that would have reduced property taxes for a number of the residents in the area.

The ordinance, sponsored by assembly representative Brent Johnson, was originally introduced in June and came up for debate in July. Johnson said he proposed moving the lines because the residents of Ninilchik, which is technically north of the midpoint of the Sterling Highway, tend to come to Soldotna to use Central Peninsula Hospital. It is unfair for them to have to pay more in property taxes to South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, which has a higher mill rate in its service area, he said.

“It can be safely assumed that the vast majority of the people living between the (Clam Gulch Tower) and the midpoint routinely use Central Peninsula Hospital (CPH),” Johnson wrote in his original memo to the assembly. “Why should they pay taxes to (South Peninsula Hospital) when they use CPH?”

Moving the line proved more complicated than just the mill rate, though. The presence of the Ninilchik Tribal Council’s Community Clinic, the sole medical facility between Soldotna and Homer, added another element to the decision because it is supported by South Peninsula Hospital. The hospital provides imaging and lab services to the clinic and paid the recruitment costs to hire a physician who now commutes between the hospital and the clinic.

If the line were moved south of the clinic, South Peninsula Hospital could no longer provide services to the clinic. Central Peninsula Hospital could pick up the partnership, but those agreements take time to hammer out.

At the assembly meeting in July, in addition to concerns about the future of the clinic, assembly members could not agree where the best place for the new line would be. Some felt that the line was arbitrary and would lead to future disagreements in the community over property tax payments.

After a long debate with dozens of public comments made at two public hearings and submitted in writing, the assembly decided in a 4-4 vote not to send the decision to the ballot in October, with assembly member Stan Welles absent. Assembly member Dale Bagley asked for reconsideration at the end of the July 26 meeting, which came up for debate at the assembly’s Tuesday meeting.

However, the discussion was short, and the assembly voted 4-4 again to not reconsider it. Johnson said he had corresponded with Welles and received his support, but assembly member Kelly Cooper, who represents Homer, said she did not see a reason to reconsider it because nothing had changed between the July 26 meeting and Tuesday.

“I appreciate the conversation that you had with Mr. Welles, but the reality is that the eight of us that are sitting here now, nothing has changed from those eight, so what was decided at the end of the last meeting should stand,” Cooper said.

A number of residents, who have come to multiple public hearings on the issue, came to the Tuesday meeting with printed signs that read, “Please move the line.” However, upon finding out there would be no public comment on the ordinance, several left the meeting, silently holding up the signs as they walked out of the room.

Johnson said he thought it was unfair to ask those people to wait until the end of the meeting to have their say. At the end of the meeting, when assembly members are allowed to comment on any matter, he said he still thought the line should be moved, though this was his last chance — he will be term-limited out of office after the October election.

“I hope that this is not the end of it — I hope that these seeds are sown deep,” Johnson said. “I hope that those people take this to heart. I hope that they come back. And for Homer hospital I have this to say: Pharaoh hospital, let my people go.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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