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With two votes in favor, one vote against and two abstentions, Jefferson Healthcare commissioners did not meet the required majority to endorse the proposed Home Opportunity Fund levy Oct. 18. On the ballot, the levy is titled Proposition 1.
After hospital Commissioners Kees Kolff and Matt Ready expressed their support for the property tax proposal, Commissioner Marie Dressler reiterated her reasons for abstaining, and Commissioner Tony DeLeo voted “nay.” Following an extended question-and-answer session with Homes Now campaign manager Bruce Cowan, the deciding vote was left to commission board chair Jill Buhler.
Although Buhler said she does not believe the hospital is “wholly responsible” for addressing the problems of homelessness in Jefferson County, she pledged that the hospital would continue to “collaborate with others” to try to solve those problems.
At the same time, Buhler pronounced “a moral imperative” to ensure that “every single person” who walks through the hospital’s doors receives “the finest possible care,” an imperative that she deemed incompatible with taking sides on an issue as “polarized” as Proposition 1.
“If even one person feels uncomfortable coming into our clinic as a result, that is unacceptable,” Buhler said. “This is why I can vote neither to support nor to oppose Proposition 1, and I abstain.”
Although the two “yea” votes outnumbered the one “nay” vote, they did not constitute a majority of the five-member board.
Dressler, who recounted her own struggles with housing insecurity as a child after her father died, voiced sympathy for those facing a similar plight, but given the number of factors that she asserted could contribute to such situations, she does not see it as a matter for the hospital board to weigh in on, one way or the other.
“The health of this hospital district is my priority,” Dressler said. “I believe it’s up to each voter in the district to decide for themselves on this issue. It’s not the duty of this board to influence their votes.”
“I’m torn as well,” Kolff said, after Dressler spoke, even as he proclaimed housing to be a critical need for the population of Jefferson County as a whole. “I don’t think a property tax is the best way to do this. An income tax would be less regressive. But even if this is a small step, we need to take it.”
Ready not only declared his support for Proposition 1, but also expressed his appreciation for those who had crafted the measure, describing them as being “on the front lines of the housing crisis,” where “real people are suffering.”
“Let’s just try it,” Ready said. “Next year, we might have another idea we could try, but in the meantime, let’s do something.”
DeLeo’s “nay” vote came after he raised a series of questions about Proposition 1 that he felt had not yet been answered to his satisfaction. Cowan – who was joined by his wife and fellow Homes Now campaigner Deborah Pedersen, as well as Olympic Community Action Programs’ (OlyCAP) Dale Wilson and Kathy Morgan – took the time to answer DeLeo’s questions one by one, often referring to an email he had previously sent to DeLeo.
While low-income seniors and the disabled would not be exempt from the Home Opportunity Fund levy itself, Cowan noted they would be exempt from school taxes and bonds.
Cowan also clarified that those submitting projects to the Home Opportunity Fund would be responsible for owning, managing and maintaining the resulting housing for at least 40 years.
When DeLeo wondered whether the Home Opportunity Fund could give preferential consideration to local contractors, Cowan told him it couldn’t. Likewise, when DeLeo suggested investing in trade schools or unions associated with housing, Cowan told him that the Home Opportunity Fund would be focused more on “landlord/tenant relationships.”
“People aren’t legally required to already be residents of Jefferson County in order to qualify for these services,” Cowan said, in response to another of DeLeo’s questions. “But programs like OlyCAP already have wait lists of local people who are in need of such services, with whom they can get in touch.”
When DeLeo suggested that existing nonprofit organizations could address the lack of affordable housing, Cowan cited eight such organizations that have endorsed Proposition 1 because they don’t think they can handle it on their own.
Morgan spoke up when DeLeo voiced his concerns about the possibility that affordable housing created by the Home Opportunity Fund could become a haven for illegal drug dealers or users.
“It’s not legal to administer drug tests to those who are just renting a place, but that should be minimized through the thorough background checks that will be required,” Morgan said. “These projects will be so scrutinized that, while I can’t say that a meth lab at one of these properties could never exist, I would say it’s highly unlikely.”
After the board made its decision, Cowan exited the building and offered the opinion to The Leader that “it sounds like this decision was not made based on right or wrong, but on how divisive the issue itself was.