Public discussion continues in run-up to tax vote

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The chair of the board of Pawhuska Hospital said late last week that she was spending a good bit of time on the phone, talking with local residents about the sales tax referendum scheduled for Jan. 12.

Beth Reed said her impression, based on the volume of contact she was having with potential voters in the referendum, was that there would be a good turnout.

The city of Pawhuska referendum called for an up-or-down vote on a 20-year, 1-cent addition to the municipal sales tax to help generate funds for the hospital. The measure, if approved, would likely mean an infusion of more than $400,000 per year for the 25-bed critical-access hospital, according to hospital officials.

Public discussion of the sales tax vote increased as election day drew near. Osage County Sheriff Eddie Virden held a meeting Jan. 6 at the Agriculture Building at the county fairgrounds to offer interested parties a chance to ask questions about the proposed tax.

Just over a dozen people, most of them affiliated with organizations, attended the meeting at the fairgrounds. No one from Pawhuska Hospital was present, and Christi McNeil, director of the Osage County Housing Authority, questioned whether the hospital had been invited to send a representative. McNeil said she was interested in gathering information to help residents of Housing Authority properties.

Virden said it had been his impression, due to media coverage, that the hospital was aware of the meeting. Reed told the Journal-Capital that the hospital had not been invited to send anyone. She indicated there had been some consideration of whether to send someone, but without an invitation the hospital decided not to participate.

Virden apologized for the situation during the fairgrounds meeting. He also clarified during the meeting that his intention had been to provide information to the public about the upcoming tax vote, and to inquire about options for moving ahead without a tax. The sheriff said he did not mean for his effort to be understood in unfriendly terms.

"This is not about attacking the hospital," Virden said. He added that he didn't want the Pawhuska community to lose its hospital, or for anyone to lose their job.

Virden said he was motivated to organize a meeting after having contact with numerous residents who were of the impression that the community would lose the hospital if the sales tax measure did not pass.

Reed said in a Pawhuska City Council meeting in October 2020 that the hospital would not close if the referendum failed, but she also said there could be longer-term danger to the hospital if it did not receive needed resources.

Jeff Hill, CEO of First Physicians Capital Group, the entity that manages Fairfax Community Hospital, that his firm employs a financial model that does not include asking for tax revenue. Hill, who spoke at the request of Virden, clarified that he was not expressing any view on how Pawhuska residents should vote.

District 1 County Commissioner Randall Jones attended the information meeting at the fairgrounds, but clarified that he was doing so as a resident of Pawhuska who wanted more information. Mark Buchanan, the Ward 3 member of the Pawhuska City Council, attended the meeting, as did council candidate Rodger Milleson.