MONTROSE – After a contentious three-way meeting between the Montrose Board of County Commissioners, the Montrose Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees and the Basin Clinic Board on Tuesday, a tentative agreement was reached that could allow for, but not guarantee, the distribution of Public Safety Sales Tax dollars to the Basin Clinic, in the West End, and the Olathe Clinic.
Before the hospital was leased to the nonprofit Montrose Memorial Hospital, Inc. last year, the distribution to the clinics of Safety Sales Tax revenue, through a voucher process from the county to the MMH Board of Trustees, wasn’t an issue. But now that the lease to the nonprofit MMH is in place, County Attorney Robert Hill believes a contract agreement needs to be in place for the funding to happen.
Tuesday’s meeting was intended to hash out the agreement between the three parties in order for the distribution of sales tax revenues to be released from past years, and for future budget appropriations. While much of the back-and-forth discussion dealt with the draft agreement under consideration, MMH Trustee Debi Harmon wanted to know where some Safety Sales Tax revenues for 2011 and all of 2012 are being kept, and when the county planned to pay them.
According to Harmon, the county stopped paying the clinics on Nov. 1, 2011, and the hospital district hasn’t seen any sales tax revenues from the county since, including the budgeted amount of $45,000 for November and December of 2011 and for the entire year of 2012 totaling $202,500. (Beginning Oct. 20, the Olathe Clinic will be federally funded, and thus longer be eligible for county funding.)
“With all due respect, I am trying to get the arrears owed to the clinic that’s been appropriated and approved,” Harmon told the commissioners on Tuesday. “That definitely needs to go to the clinic before we can talk about 2013.”
Several times in the meeting, County Administrator Jesse Smith noted that even though an amount of Safety Sales Tax revenues has been budgeted, that fact does not require the county to spend the money.
“When an amount is budgeted, it does not mean that amount has to be spent,” Smith said. “That is at the discretion of the commissioners. We budgeted an amount in 2012 and the intent was probably to split it. I’d say the same thing in 2011…there is no stipulated amount that has to go to anyone. It can change every year based on approval.”
While Harmon asked where the appropriated money for 2011 and 2012 was, she also asked if the county’s ability to withhold Safety Sales Tax revenues at the commissioners’ discretion is in line with voter approved Public Safety Sales Tax ballot issue of 2007.
The Safety Sales Tax ballot issue imposed a .75 percent sales tax to be used “exclusively for capital expenditures or operational costs associated with public safety organizations…” including “the sheriff’s office, the regional dispatch center, the drug task force, rural medical clinics office or any other public entity dedicated to providing services related to public safety, public health, or emergency management at the county or local level.” No less than 70 percent of the annual revenues garnered by the increase is dedicated to the Montrose County Sheriff’s Office.
“This was a ballot issue approved by voters, and you are supposed to disperse the funds,” Harmon said of the 2011 and 2012 tax revenues appropriated to the clinics. “You approved it and appropriated it and, at your discretion, you decided not to fund it. It goes directly against what the voters approved. How can you come in and go against what the voters approved?”
Commissioner Gary Ellis responded by saying that it is at the commissioners’ discretion to choose how to spend the final 30 percent of the Safety Sales Tax dollars each year and if, for instance, the sheriff needed 100 percent of those dollars, the commissioners could legally give the office 100 percent of those funds. As for the funds from 2011 and 2012 appropriated for the clinics, Ellis said the money is still there and can still be made available for the clinics.
“We allocated funds and there was a change in governance for November and December  and the money was withheld,” Ellis said. “The money is still there. If we committed that money out of the sales tax to give to the clinics and we didn’t utilize it, to me it should be available for 2011 and also 2012.”
Several times during the meeting, Ellis said he’d be willing to pay the appropriated amounts from 2011 and 2012, but commissioners Ron Henderson and David White were silent on that issue.
If it is the desire of the commissioners to pay the unpaid 2011 and 2012 appropriated Safety Sales Tax revenues to the clinics, Hill said later in the meeting, a budget amendment for this year would have to be approved after all three parties enter into the agreement. Where the Safety Sales Tax revenues appropriated for the clinics in 2011 and 2012 is unclear.
Smith said in an interview on Wednesday, that the commissioners only need to make a formal budget amendment when spending goes above an appropriated amount and that no budget amendment is needed should the commissioners decide to not spend an appropriated amount in a year’s budget.
“Because the hospital changed its status, the county could not pay them anything [in 2011 or 2012]," Smith said. “We were paying the money to the hospital at the time and when they became a private entity, the county could no longer pay them without breaking the law.
“They did this to themselves. We didn’t change their status, they did,” Smith said.
As for the draft agreement under consideration, Hill responded to a number of questions and concerns raised by members of the Basin Clinic Board and trustees. Trustee William Bennett told the commissioners that the agreement seemed very one-sided.
“I have dealt with contracts my whole life,” Bennett said. “I have never seen a contract where it can be unitarily terminated with no penalties. Why sign a contract? We don’t need a contract. We don’t need one. We have been getting money for those systems since 1946. There is no problem in doing it. We don’t need a contract…this isn’t a contract.
“It’s a statement of what you want.”
Ellis responded to Bennett’s concerns by saying the commissioners are following the advice of their attorney, Hill.
White said the agreement “is not rocket science” and that “it’s real simple: Draft an agreement and sign a check. That’s all it is.”
To which, Harmon responded: “We are ready for the check.”
The meeting adjourned after it was agreed that an amended draft of the agreement would be reworked and sent to all parties for approval.