Lewis Griswold

Demolition begins to clear way for new Visalia hospital

A wrecking crew demolished two buildings at Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia last week to make way for a new hospital.

But the sound wasn’t loud enough to drown out one critic of the Measure H hospital bond to help fund the project.

Still, the bustling activity marked a beginning and gave Measure H supporters another chance to tell their story.

By law, hospitals in California must be earthquake-safe by 2030.

The current main hospital – the Mineral King wing with 273 beds – doesn’t meet the new standards, so the Kaweah Delta Health Care District board of trustees opted to build a new hospital.

They proposed a $327 million general obligation bond, Measure H. It is a mail-only election; ballots will be sent April 4 and are due May 3.

To pass, Measure H must receive two-thirds voter approval.

The district has no choice but to build a new hospital, said Kaweah Delta Health Care District CEO Lindsay Mann.

“It’s a matter of law,” he said, referring to the 2030 mandate. “It’s also a matter of having vital health care services in our community.”

If the bond doesn’t pass, the hospital project will be stymied, he said.

“We don’t have the resources without the general obligation bond,” Mann said. “We will not be able to proceed.”

Dr. Byron Riegel, a former two-term hospital board member, disagrees.

“There’s no question we need a new hospital,” he said. “I believe it’s wrong to finance it this way.”

The total cost of the hospital project is $550 million.

The money would come from four sources:

▪  Revenue bonds: $75 million

▪  Cash reserves: $133 million

▪  General obligation bond: $327 million

▪  Philanthropy and grants: $15 million

Riegel said the district should raise cash by selling some of its assets, such as The Lifestyle Center gym and Quail Park retirement home, and not go to voters.

Mann likened Riegel’s idea to “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”

The district is financially strong because of diversification, which allows the staff to deliver high quality health care, he said.

“We’re not a first-aid station,” he said.

Riegel is objecting to the cost of the hospital bond, Mann said.

The bond measure proposes to tax property owners at $48.70 per $100,000 assessed valuation per year.

“If it’s all about the money, the bond will fail,” Mann said.

The hospital board would have to go to the community again with another bond measure, he said.

Riegel also noted that residents of Exeter, Woodlake, Dinuba, Lindsay and Porterville use the hospital but are outside the district and wouldn’t have to pay the tax.

Mann said residents in areas outside the district by law can’t be asked to vote on the proposed bond. Besides, he said, patients from outside the district get billed just like other patients.

He said the business community supports Measure H because the hospital employs 4,200 people, has career jobs averaging $31.50 per hour, and having a good hospital is a factor for businesses that might locate in the area.

The Visalia Chamber of Commerce, Tulare-Kings Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Visalians, Visalia Economic Development Corporation and others have endorsed Measure H, he said.

So far, Riegel has been the only loud voice of opposition to the bond measure.

He said others share his views but are afraid to say so publicly for fear of offending their hospital connections, telling him “I agree with you, but I can’t put my fingerprints on this.”

No organized opposition to Measure H has emerged, but a Facebook page called Visalia No on Measure H appeared several days ago, garnering 72 “likes” and a few comments.

Yes on Measure H also has a Facebook page and a website: friendsofkd.com.

Some Visalia council members and school board members have said the bond measure makes it harder for other public entities to seek tax measures, but none have outright opposed the bond.

Construction of the new hospital will take place in phases, with the first phase to open in 2023 and finish in 2029, according to the health care district.

Meanwhile, the area where the two buildings were torn down will be paved and used for temporary parking.

Lewis Griswold covers the news of the South Valley for The Fresno Bee: 559-441-6104, lgriswold@fresnobee.com, @fb_LewGriswold