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Taxes help keep rural medical clinics open

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Depending on local tax dollars to help support medical services is nothing new in Routt County.

Since the early 1960s, taxpayers have been footing at least part of the bill in Hayden. Now, South Routt County voters will decide Tuesday whether to create a taxing district to keep the doors of the medical clinic in Oak Creek open. The proposed 2.1-mill levy would generate about $180,000 annually.

The historic Solandt Memorial Hospital was built in 1923 and overlooks Hayden from the top of Hospital Hill. For many years, Hayden had the only hospital between Denver and Salt Lake City. Today, it is used as the satellite office for several doctors and provides a valuable service for Hayden residents.

"It's really important with our little towns to have a sense of community," said Kathy Hockin, who has served as president of the hospital board for more than 20 years. "If you have medical care and schools, you become your own community. Without that, you are just a bedroom community."

Even with a 2-mill levy in place to support the hospital in the early 1960s, the hospital was losing money and closed in 1966.

Bessie Jo Rienks has served as the hospital's bookkeeper since 1961. She said that after the hospital closed, supporters sent hundreds of letters to doctors across the country asking them to start a practice at the hospital. Four years later, a Steamboat Springs doctor opened a satellite office in Hayden.

Today, the Solandt Memorial Hospital district runs the building, which provides a clinic and satellite offices for caregivers from three medical practices, a dentist, and mental health professional. The hours and days doctors are in their offices vary.

Taxes generate about $15,000 a year, which is used to pay for heat, building insurance and maintenance, among other things. It also subsidizes the rent tenants pay, which raises about $30,000 each year. Without the tax money it receives, Hockin said the clinic would not exist.

"There isn't enough money to maintain our building without our tax revenues," Hockin said.

There is just enough money to keep the building going, and Hockin said more funds would allow the district to expand medical services. A lab facility is in the hospital, but it lacks the money to operate an X-ray machine.

Currently, Hayden residents who own $200,000 in residential property pay less than $3 a year to the hospital district.

When a hospital was operated out of the building, a higher tax rate generated money that went to paying nurses and buying supplies.

The mill levy in South Routt would pay for a doctor and keep the clinic doors open five days a week. A consultant helped the South Routt Medical Center board decide how much revenue it needed to generate.

The tax increase would mean residential property owners would pay about $24 per $150,000 of assessed property.

Originally, the board considered a lower tax levy but decided it wanted to make sure there was enough money to expand the program while limiting the financial burden on taxpayers, said David Bonfiglio, who owns Bonfiglio Drug in Oak Creek and sits on the South Routt Medical Center board.

Raising the tax levy would require voter approval.

One of the main differences between health services in Hayden and South Routt would be that staff at the clinic in Oak Creek would be hired and contracted by the South Routt Medical Center board. Private practices operate out of Hayden.

The tax revenues would be spent on staff salaries for physicians, medical supplies, capital improvements, medications and educational projects. If the mill levy does not pass in South Routt, the clinic likely would close.

The clinic's only doctor, Bill Geserick, said he would quit if the levy does not pass.

Officials said Geserick's dedication to Oak Creek has been valuable but that there need to be incentives for providers to practice in small towns such as those in South Routt.

"You can only expect someone to work with less pay for so long," Bonfiglio said.

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