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Taxpayer Group Seeks Tobacco Deal

Health care: Association president calls on county board and Community Memorial to halt 'polarizing rhetoric.' Hospital officials welcome comments, while supervisors condemn them.


A top Ventura County taxpayer advocate urged county supervisors Tuesday to stop fighting and seek a compromise with Community Memorial Hospital over its effort to transfer control of the county's $260-million tobacco settlement to private hospitals.

Community Memorial officials welcomed the comments of Mike Saliba, president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn., and said they hope acrimony stirred by the debate will give way to more reasonable discussions.

"I thought it was a rational approach," said Community Memorial's chief administrator, Michael Bakst. "The supervisors have always had a very cavalier attitude of overlooking private-care institutions, and that is something that needs to be addressed."

Saliba called on leaders on both sides of the tobacco settlement issue to halt their "inflammatory and polarizing rhetoric" and continue meeting to work out differences on how the money should be spent.

Saliba's comments came just as county election officials announced that a Community Memorial-sponsored initiative that would turn over the tobacco money to seven local private hospitals had qualified for the November ballot. Although Community Memorial needed only 20,000 voter signatures to qualify, about 30,000 were verified, election officials said.

County supervisors will consider as early as next Tuesday whether to place the measure on the ballot. They have the option of calling for a 30-day study of the measure or pass it as law.

The supervisors wasted no time criticizing the taxpayer association's position Tuesday and told Saliba he should be using his influence to pressure Community Memorial to end what they see as an attempt to hijack county finances.

"The initiative is being used as a gun to our heads," said Supervisor John Flynn. "That's inflammatory, and to not take a stand on the initiative to me is immoral."

Supervisor Frank Schillo was surprised by Saliba's comments, saying they did not reflect the group's commitment as a taxpayer watchdog.

"I'm very disappointed," Schillo said. "I think we rely on the taxpayers association to alert the public to things that are happening with their money."

Supervisor Kathy Long was more blunt: "We need to be angry as hell."

Despite the condemnation, Saliba said he was only trying to speed along the process in the public's interest.

"They're starting to put this thing together," he said. "We're just trying to encourage a settlement."

Jere Robings, another county taxpayer advocate, agreed with the position taken by Saliba's group.

"I think they were right on target," Robings said. "[The association] should be concerned, and they're certainly looking out for the taxpayer because those supervisors can throw away money better than anybody I've ever seen."

Community Memorial officials note that the supervisors have already voted to use $10 million of the tobacco money to pay federal health-care penalties and to cover budget shortfalls.

Bakst said he would like to see all the tobacco money used to help private hospitals provide and expand care for children, seniors and the indigent.

He said the initiative was not a reaction to the supervisors' decision to use some of the money to pay fines and boost coffers, but by the county's failure to increase the Ventura County Medical Center's $42-million annual budget.

"I assumed they didn't need it," Bakst said, adding that he and others feared the money would be used for other, non-health-related projects.

With voter signatures verified on the Community Memorial petition, there is little chance supervisors will be able to stop the initiative from being placed on the fall ballot.

"Once those 38,000 signatures were handed over to the county it was no longer a Community Memorial campaign," said hospital spokesman Mark Barnhill. "Now it's an initiative from the people of Ventura County."

Backers of the initiative are confident that the support they garnered in their signature drive will carry over to the November election.

Bakst said he remains open to any dialogue with the county, but would limit it to discussions on how to maintain hospital quality in this age of cost-conscious managed care.

Putting the matter before voters, hospital officials said, is the right course to be taken and if passed would give private hospitals in the area a 25-year reservoir to fund a host of health-care programs.

"This is not the kingdom of Ventura County," Barnhill said. "We live in a democracy. The supervisors' contempt for that is unconscionable."

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