The Cook Hospital is an incredibly valuable community asset, and that’s one very good reason that the Cook-Orr Healthcare District Board is thinking about how to continue to fund a bright future for the institution.
The healthcare district has, to date, been successful relying on its ability to make the case to residents in outlying townships that joining the district and paying their share of its $1.3 million annual levy is a sound investment. While district officials have made the case over the years, they have ultimately left the decision to local elected officials and voters. District officials erred in deviating from that previous approach, by seeking to force some townships to pay the district’s levy, against the wishes of residents.
While the goal of district board members is understandable, this is the wrong approach and it threatens to undermine the good public relations that the hospital has long enjoyed.
It has certainly caused consternation in some of the townships that could be affected by the healthcare district’s effort to gain through legislation what it can’t win at the ballot box. The move came as a particular shock to officials in Vermilion Lake Township, located between Tower and Virginia, which has never even been asked to join the district. Given its location, most residents of the township were likely unaware of the existence of the hospital district, since the vast majority secure their health care services in communities along the Hwy. 169 corridor, either Tower, Virginia or Ely.
There’s no evidence that the township was ever within the district’s legislatively-established boundaries, save for a single map of questionable origin that made the rounds of district board members. A review of the authorizing legislation makes no mention of either Vermilion Lake or Greenwood townships, and existing law requires an affirmative vote of the local town board or city council, or of the voters, before taxpayers can be assessed by a special taxing authority, such as a hospital district. Greenwood Township has twice rejected such requests, and Vermilion Lake has never been approached. Other townships that the hospital district seeks to annex include Morcom, Alango, and Sturgeon.
The apparent impetus for the healthcare district’s sudden move is the desire of Kabetogama Township to extricate itself from the district’s taxing authority. As with townships like Morcom or Vermilion Lake, Kabetogama is located a long way from the Cook Hospital and its residents rarely utilize the facility’s services. Kabetogama residents typically use the hospital in International Falls and they feel put upon for having been included in the Cook-Orr Healthcare District by a vote of the county board back when the area was still unorganized. Rather than resolve that concern, it appears some in the township have opted to let others feel their pain by pushing to annex other townships against their will in order to reduce the tax burden for residents of Kabetogama. That’s not exactly neighborly. At least Kabetogama residents had the opportunity to argue against their inclusion in the district when the issue came before the county board nearly two decades ago.
Some have argued that the townships in question owe a duty to help fund the healthcare district. Yet township officials owe their primary duty to their constituents, and right now they seem motivated to defend their residents against what they understandably view as a hostile action by the healthcare district board.
What’s more, the healthcare district funds both the Cook and Orr ambulance services. That’s fine, except residents of Greenwood and Vermilion Lake already pay to support the Tower ambulance service, which serves their communities. It’s reasonable to assume that residents wouldn’t want to pay for all three, so a forced annexation of Greenwood and Vermilion Lake would likely take funding away from Tower’s ambulance.
At this point, the healthcare district should end its legislative push for annexation, and do so publicly. While the district’s goal of increasing its tax base and lowering the tax burden for existing property owners is understandable, their current effort is heavy-handed. It’s out of keeping with the usual approach of the healthcare district board and it causes unnecessary and unhelpful ill will towards the hospital itself. The district’s board should chalk this one up to a communications misfire, offer amends to the affected townships, and move on. It’s not a fight worth waging.