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Council delays final approval of hospital rezoning – urges additional dialogue

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Familiar faces and arguments – different result - Photos/Roger Bianchini

With the closing of the existing Warren Memorial Hospital maternity-obstetrics unit slated to occur on May 1, on Monday night, April 9, “Birth Local” activists restated their opposition to Valley Health’s moves to eliminate birthing services from its Warren County facilities present and future – and the Front Royal Town Council’s up-until-now easy compliance with that plan.

And guess what – it worked.

For some the cause is very personal – here Krista Adanitsch speaks emotionally about having 5 of her 7 children at WMH with a family photo propped against the podium. Photos/Roger Bianchini

After 11 of 14 speakers addressing the issue asked for town council support in bringing Valley Health back to the table to discuss some kind of compromise solution to keeping birthing services available locally, the town’s elected officials did an about face – voting 5-0 with one abstention to delay a final vote on the rezoning that will enable construction of Valley Health’s new Warren Memorial Hospital. The three pro-rezoning speakers were Valley Health President/CEO Mark Merrill, WMH President Floyd Heater and Valley Health Doctor Jeff Feit.

After John Connolly made a motion to approve the second reading of the rezoning, Vice-Mayor Eugene Tewalt made an amended motion to delay a vote. Connolly seconded Tewalt’s amended motion, which then passed by the 5-0 margin. Jacob Meza has recused himself from the discussion and voting due to his employment with Valley Health.

‘Birth Local’ co-founder Melanie Salins

The vote derailed what many including some “Birth Local” members assumed would be a routine second vote of approval of the rezoning Monday night. And while no one believes the ultimate resolution will be anything other than 5-0 approval of the rezoning enabling Valley Health’s nearly $100-million investment in a modern hospital facility here, now at least there is hope of additional dialogue prior to that final approval.

Valley Health officials have cited low local birth numbers – about 330 a year, or less than one a day at WMH – to justify the exclusion of a maternity unit in its planned $97-million-plus new hospital off Leach Run Parkway.

‘Birth Local’s’ Michelle Matthiae

Opponents of that decision have derided Valley Health for a decision they believe puts bottom-line profits above women’s health concerns. “Birth Local” organizers and supporters have cited a national trend of closures of rural area maternity units that they contend has a negative impact on maternal and newborn health statistics.

And while Valley Health officials have noted there will be room to add a maternity-OB unit to the new facility planned to open in late 2019 when local birth statistics justify it; that has not been enough for “Birth Local” advocates.

For others the concern is professional – Dr. ‘Bill’ Kerns has cited statistics indicating a rise in maternity-related health issues in areas where maternity services have been removed.

As he had before county officials the day after council’s March 26 public hearing and first vote of approval, on April 9 Doctor John William Kerns questioned Valley Health’s commitment to meaningful dialogue, even toward a compromise solution. Of a suggestion that Valley Health provide necessary backup for another private obstetrics care company to keep a specialized maternity facility open in the community after the planned WMH maternity unit closing, he said the Valley Health response was “it’s too difficult”. Those fighting to maintain full women’s health and birthing care locally have wondered “too difficult” or “too inconvenient” to maintaining a competitive edge – what some have called “monopoly” – in regional medical care?

With a somewhat skeptical ‘Birth Local’ audience in the front row, Valley Health President and CEO Mark Merrill tries to explain his company’s rationale for closing local birthing services, as well as its financial and health contributions to the community.

With further dialogue likely in the wake of council’s delay on final approval of the necessary rezoning for the new WMH, perhaps such questions will be answered.

Tax rate

Also on Monday night, council voted 5-1, Meza dissenting, to approve a flat tax rate as part of the Fiscal Year 2019 budget. Sealock, along with Vice-Mayor Eugene Tewalt and Meza have urged their colleagues to begin making small incremental tax hikes to begin putting money aside to pay the coming debt service on the new $11-million Front Royal Police headquarters. That debt service is forecast to begin at around $250,000 a year under the interest-only New Market Tax Credit program, then jump to about $750,000 per year after seven or nine years of a 40-year debt service.

See related story: Divided Front Royal Town Council passes – barely – flat tax rate for FY19

Front Royal’s tax rates will remain flat, at 13.5-cents per $100 of value for real estate and personal property at 64-cents per $100 of value. Also set were a personal property tax relief rate of 60-percent of value on the first $20,000 of assessed value on qualifying vehicles assessed at over $1,000 of value; and a corresponding tax relief rate of 100-percent for qualifying vehicles assessed at $1,000 or less; and adjustment of town codes to accommodate any changes.

Corridor agreement

And on Monday evening council unanimously approved formalization of the 2015 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Warren County on the Voluntary Settlement Agreement on compensation to the Town for its extension of central water-sewer utilities into the Route 340/522 North Commercial-Industrial Corridor.

And in an unrelated event at Monday’s meeting, local students Rusha Patel and Amy Thomas were presented with $500 scholarships for winning a Town-sponsored essay contest. Here the girls and Mayor Tharpe listen as councilmen read their essays.

The 2015 MOA mandated that the County pay the Town 30% of the revenue realized from its corridor Meals Taxes and 5% of its Lodging Tax revenue. According to Front Royal Finance Director B.J. Wilson, over the past two fiscal years that revenue has totaled about $465,000, $227,874 in FY17 and an estimated $237,252 in FY18. The County pays the Town in two installments in December and June of each fiscal year.

As noted by the town finance director, the great bulk of those payments are from the meals tax portion of the arrangement, as illustrated by the FY17 split of $225,266 in meals tax revenue and just $2,608 from the 5% lodging tax aspect of the payment. According to auditors the County collected $782,066 in corridor meals tax in FY17 and $52,619 in corridor-associated lodging tax.

Town Attorney Doug Napier explained that the formalized update will also elaborate on how an additional 3-percent in lodging tax the County has added since 2015 will be divided. That additional 3-percent will be split 50/50 on tourism promotion for the Town and County. Also added to the agreement is the land for the Crooked Run West commercial expansion.

See related story: County is first to formally endorse Corridor Agreement update

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Kenneth

    April 11, 2018 at 10:10 am

    Can the Town Council legally refuse to grant a zoning waiver? If not, why bring it up–just grant the waiver and move on.

    Of course, Valley Health could or likely would immediately file suit in Court and a Judge would decide.

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