VALE – Pioneer Place is moving ahead on a plan to expand its taxing district in Malheur County as a way to keep the Vale care center open but the move will require approval from voters.
Pioneer Place officials say they are developing a ballot initiative to annex specific portions of the county into its existing health district to generate more money for the financially struggling facility.
Corey Crismon, the administrator at Pioneer Place, said last week the five-member Pioneer Place board already scheduled a meeting Sept. 12 with the Ontario City Council to deliver a presentation about the idea.
The process to place a measure on the ballot to expand the health district is “very complicated,” said Crismon. “We are just now in the beginning process of that,” he said.
The fate of the care center lured nearly 200 people to a special town hall session Aug. 16 at the Vale Senior Center.
Pioneer Place struggled with funding shortfalls since at least 2019 and was hit especially hard during Covid, when state restrictions forced the facility to stop accepting new patients.
To meet the Covid crisis, officials drained Pioneer Place’s emergency fund for $300,000 and pulled another $75,000 from its building fund. John Nalivka, Pioneer Place board member, said previously the facility is losing about $497,000 a year.
Crismon said Pioneer Place officials have discussed crafting the ballot referral initiative with the Vale law firm of Butler & Looney but has not hired the firm for the work.
Crismon said the money collected through the annexation will be used for operations and maintaining the Vale building. That includes replacing air conditioning and repairing the roof, he said.
He said he wasn’t sure how much more cash an annexation would generate for Pioneer Place.
“My guess is around $700,000 but that is just a guess,” he said.
Pioneer Place officials must take several steps to get the measure on the ballot. The first step is to create the referral, said Dustin Martinsen, an attorney with Butler & Looney.
A plan to create a new health district to include the whole county isn’t feasible because there is already a health district – Malheur Memorial Health District – in the county. By law, a new health district cannot be created within the boundaries of another health district.
Malheur Memorial Health District covers Nyssa and Adrian and portions of rural areas near each city.
Now, the Pioneer Place Health District covers 3,600 voters in nine voting precincts including Vale, rural Vale, Willowcreek, Brogan, Ironside, Harper, Juntura and Arock. The tax rate on the Pioneer Health District is 47.74 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
The annexation option makes more sense, said Dennis Buttice, chairman of the Pioneer Place board.
“I think a lot of people are in favor of that,” he said.
Another initial step before crafting the referral, said Martinsen, will be gathering support from the city councils of the towns that may be impacted by the annexation.
“They have to agree to be annexed in,” said Martinsen.
After that, officials can start drafting the measure, including a statement explaining the impact of voting for the measure.
“Once we put that description together we then send it to the district attorney’s office for review,” he said.
When the ballot title is prepared it will be presented to Gayle Trotter, Malheur County clerk. Trotter said at that point people can appeal the title in the Malheur County Circuit Court. If there are no challenges, then the ballot title is officially filed with the clerk’s office. The next general election in Malheur County is November 2024.
A key question is what Pioneer Place officials do in the interim to stay afloat.
Crismon said the facility has some savings – enough to last six months – and will receive “a couple hundred thousand,” from a federal tax credit.
Crismon said Pioneer Place has also made spending cuts. He said the facility no longer employs a human resources director or a business office assistant and a full-time transportation position was moved to part time.
“We’ve also cut some nurses hours, about 40 hours a month. I don’t like doing that and potentially compromising patient care,” he said.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].
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