REGIONAL— A move by the Cook-Orr Hospital District board to require residents of five additional townships to pay taxes to support the operations of the Cook Hospital is facing mixed reviews, even …
REGIONAL— A move by the Cook-Orr Hospital District board to require residents of five additional townships to pay taxes to support the operations of the Cook Hospital is facing mixed reviews, even from communities that might benefit from the change.
Hospital district board members have been seeking support from local governments in the Cook and Orr areas for a legislative change that would require the residents of five townships, including Greenwood, Vermilion Lake, Alango, Sturgeon and Morcom, to pay into the hospital district through their property taxes.
According to hospital officials, those five townships were included in the identified boundaries of the hospital district, but voters there either voted against joining or were never asked to vote on the question.
Currently, the district levies about $1.3 million, which amounts to about $145 for every $100,000 in taxable market value on properties taxed by the district. Cook Hospital CEO Teresa Debevec says the levy is critical to allowing the hospital to operate at its current level of service.
Hospital officials contend that the impact of the levy on individual taxpayers would drop significantly if all of the townships within the legal boundaries of the district were paying into it. “All residents and communities enjoy the benefits of having a state-of-the-art Critical Access Hospital, 24-7 emergency room, and nursing home/care center in their communities and all residents should pay their fair share,” reads a letter that the hospital district board members have been presenting to local town boards and city councils, seeking support for their effort.
Hospital board chair Don Potter said the board has discussed the issue of fairness for some time. Representatives of Kabetogama Township, in particular, have raised the issue as township officials there have argued for the right to leave the district. They note that the vast majority of residents in the township obtain their health services in International Falls. The county board approved adding Kabetogama to the hospital district before the township was organized and residents there pay about $95,000 a year in taxes to the Cook Hospital District.
While hospital board members may have discussed the issue before, it came as a surprise to officials in some of the townships that could end up on the hook if the district’s proposal ever comes to fruition. Long-time Vermilion Lake Township Clerk Fran Silverberg said she can find no record in township minutes that anyone from the hospital district ever contacted the township about joining, or that the town board ever passed a resolution, as required by law, to officially join the district. “We weren’t even aware we were in the boundaries,” said Silverberg. The township, which sits south and west of Tower, is dissected by Hwy. 169, and most residents utilize either hospitals or clinics in Ely or Virginia for their medical care. Minn. Statute 447.31, Subd. 3 requires that local governments must vote to join a special taxing district like a hospital district, either by board or council action, or by a vote of residents.
The Greenwood Town Board has rejected previous requests by the hospital district to join, but Board Chair John Bassing said he intends to bring the issue up again at the board’s reorganizational meeting on March 23, just to reiterate the point. “We’ve voted against joining before, but I want to put it on the record again,” said Bassing.
The push for new legislation has found mixed support. The city council in Orr declined to sign on to the letter last week without hearing from the affected townships, although some townships have signed onto the proposal.
Legislators from the area, however, say they have no plans to introduce legislation that would force area townships to join the district against their will. Rep. Ecklund, DFL -I’ Falls said he’s spoken to both Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, and Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and neither have introduced any legislation at this point. “There’s nothing going on here on it,” said Ecklund. He said legislators are aware of Kabetogama’s concerns, and he and Sen. Bakk are going to look for solutions for that far northern township.
“I advised them to go to the county board to see if they can deal with it,” said Ecklund. “I’d prefer to see it handled locally, rather than at the Legislature.”