The idea of a new tax to support Munroe Regional Medical Center has divided some sitting and would-be Marion County commissioners.
On Tuesday, all but one of the Republican candidates for the commission responded to the hospital trustees' decision to pursue a new property tax to support the borrowing of $130 million to pay off debt and make capital improvements to the award-winning facility.
The candidates fell into two camps: praise for the trustees for letting voters decide, and flat opposition to the proposed tax.
The question is expected to be on the November ballot.
The candidates' comments on Tuesday were a barometer on the candidates' personal leanings to 230 GOP political, civic and business leaders gathered for the monthly meeting of the Republican Business Council.
They spoke after Munroe Regional President and CEO Steve Purves gave a general overview about the trustees' vote and the options available to the hospital's trustees and administrators.
In addition to a tax, the trustees also are vetting the idea of leasing or selling the facility to one of four companies. Purves noted that the hospital's financial consultants have described Munroe Regional as "solvent but not viable" for the long term.
He added that other independent hospitals in similar straits were considering joining the growing national trend of consolidation among hospital owners.
Munroe Regional's leaders, he indicated, don't yet appear ready for that.
"Certainly, no one wants to be a burden on the taxpayers," he said. "But as we looked at the options available ... it became pretty clear to the majority of the trustees that one option provides the most flexibility for the medical center — going forward with a public referendum."
But Purves also said the outcome would not affect Munroe Regional's service to the public.
Incumbent County Commissioner Mike Amsden, who seeks a second four-year term, said he would have preferred a vote on a local sales tax.
"Any ad valorem tax placed on our business community is going to deepen their challenges," said Amsden, who rejected the idea of any increase in property taxes.
David Moore, a political newcomer who is challenging Amsden, did not attend the meeting.
Another incumbent, Commissioner Stan McClain, who is running for a third term in District 3, said his views were no secret.
"I have been opposed to any taxation, and I will continue to be opposed to taxation," said McClain, who added that his distaste for taxes extended beyond Munroe Regional.
"I'm opposed to anybody levying a tax on any Marion County citizen," he added, because taxes strip the community of its wealth.
The hospital would be no different, he said.
"We will take taxation from those who have already gained some wealth — we'll take money from them and you cannot create wealth with it. It will not create wealth for our community. It will not create jobs for our community. ... Taxation never, never creates wealth."
Earl Arnett, another political newcomer seeking the seat being vacated by commission Chairman Charlie Stone, called Munroe Regional an "incredible community asset" but said that supporting it with a new property tax offered little more than a Band-Aid.
Making way for a new private sector leasee, on the other hand, was the only option.
"We pay federal taxes and state taxes for the same medical and health treatment that we're already paying for. Where does it end? I don't know about you, but I've had enough."
Butch Verrando, another candidate for Stone's seat making his first bid for elected office, praised the hospital's administrators for their work.
But he said the trustees were "remiss" in choosing a referendum, and called on voters to say no.
"I don't believe in a tax. I don't believe in a bond referendum that will lead to a tax," Verrando said.
"I believe that our hospital deserves a long-term solution. ... We need to look very seriously at a new leasee, one who has access to capital and who can grow this hospital to be better than it is today."
On the other hand, the remaining candidates were willing to trust the wisdom of the voters.
Bob Cretul, another newcomer and contender for Stone's seat, said Washington forgets about the sentiments of the public. Marion County should not.
"We need to let the people decide," said Cretul, noting that Munroe Regional has suffered because of cuts in state and federal aid for low-income patients.
Pat Gabriel, trying to succeed Stone and making her second run at a commission seat, said the trustees "did absolutely the right thing" in opting for a referendum.
Health care is an important quality of life matter that deserves public input, she said.
Francine Johannesen, another potential successor to Stone who is running for elected office for the first time, noted she has opposed taxes in the past, including lobbying the County Commission to repeal transportation impact fees.
But the trustees, she said, have shown a "forward-thinking attitude" in letting voters weigh in.
"I'm not a fan of more taxes," Johannesen said. "But I am a huge fan of empowering the voter. ... If the voters want more taxes, let them tell us. If they don't, you know they're certainly going to tell us that."
Ryan O'Reilly appeared on behalf of Jeff Gold, a political newcomer who seeks to unseat McClain.
Gold, he said, believes "it was the community that supported creating this hospital, and it's the community that should be the one to decide if they want to continue to support it" with a new tax.