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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

19 Dec 2018

District Reconstructed: The Whole Valley Is Finally Part of the Desert Healthcare District—and the Expansion Means There's a Lot of Work to Do

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Interim DHCD CEO Chris Christensen speaks at a post-election board meeting. Interim DHCD CEO Chris Christensen speaks at a post-election board meeting. Kevin Fitzgerald

An Election Day decision by eastern Coachella Valley voters could have a positive impact on all valley residents’ access to quality healthcare moving forward.

Voters overwhelmingly approved Measure BB—written by the Desert Healthcare District in conjunction with the Riverside County Board of Supervisors—as the final step required in the DHCD’s efforts to expand its borders east beyond Cook Street. While the expansion of services to some of the valley’s most underserved communities may have seemed like a no-brainer during the run-up to the election, the process did not get this far without a lot of work.

“I think it’s important to note that this has been an extremely robust, kind of overwhelming process just to get to this point,” said interim DHCD CEO Chris Christensen during a recent phone interview. “There were times when there was concern whether the public would potentially (be able to) vote for passage of the measure. With all of the polling, the focus groups, the negotiations with the county board of supervisors and all the effort that has gone into this over the last year and a half, it was extremely close that this would not have made it onto the ballot this year. … I was told that no other health-care district in the state has ever had to go through this process of expansion, so it’s unprecedented. Our next step is to get the funding and continue the good things the district does.”

The Desert Healthcare District was created by the state of California in 1948. Today, the DHCD provides support to a variety of organizations (such as Find Food Bank, Volunteers in Medicine, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, etc.) that provide health and wellness services to residents. However, the district’s boundaries stopped at Cook Street—until the passage of Measure BB finally expanded the district valley-wide.

The fundraising challenge ahead for the DHCD is daunting—more about that later—and a number of milestones need to be achieved soon to keep the bureaucratic end of this process on track and on time. One of the first requirements stemming from the voters’ expansion approval is the appointment of two new DHCD board directors who live in the annexed areas. According to a current DHCD timeline, the board must adopt a resolution to increase the number of its members from five to seven by no later than Jan. 2, 2019. Once that commitment is confirmed, the board will start to accept applications from east valley residents who would like to serve. Any interested residents will have until Jan. 8 to submit an application. During this same period, the DHCD staff will be managing a multi-pronged information-outreach effort to the annexed communities.

This candidate search will culminate at a public meeting of the board on Jan. 15, where applicants of interest to the board will be interviewed and considered. By the meeting’s conclusion, two new board members will be appointed, with one serving a term ending in December 2020, and the other serving until December 2022.

“Obviously, we’re looking for individuals who have a passion for our mission and what we’re doing,” Christensen said. “We’re willing to hear from anyone. But whether the board chooses to hear from all the applicants during the meeting interview opportunity will be at its own discretion. There are some limitations where a candidate cannot have worked in management, or as an executive, at the Desert Regional Medical Center or other hospitals in our region.

Doug Morin, the executive director of Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine in Indio, welcomed the forthcoming expansion, while taking a realistic view of the overall process.

“Though this has passed, I don’t know that the district really understands fully yet how they’re going to proceed,” Morin said. “Nobody has come to us to say, ‘Hey … you’re going to get access to more money.’ None of that has happened yet. For many of us agencies, we’re all very pleased and excited, because the valley is the valley. It shouldn’t be eastern valley and western valley; it’s one valley. … It certainly is the beginning of treating everyone in the valley equally regardless of where you live.”

A first step toward that end will be the creation of two new zones of service, which will get under way in February 2019. It will require the redrawing of boundaries for the existing five districts, as well as the establishment of new boundaries for the annexed area zones. According to the DHCD informational materials, a resolution to be passed in February will call for the new zones to be properly established; outline a public-outreach process; explain the zone-creation process and encourage public participation; and offer a schedule of public hearings regarding the new maps. A vote to adopt a final map of the seven new zones is set to take place sometime in October.

“We will be making concerted efforts in community relations in the expanded areas to better understand what the needs are, and how to provide access, program services, facilities or whatever options there are that make the most sense relative to the resources we have available,” Christensen said. “Obviously, we’re planning to increase those resources to provide additional opportunities. We’ll establish an office presence in the expanded area. We’re currently looking at a property where we would set up a satellite office so that we can have access to the community members there. We don’t want them to feel that they have to go all the way to Palm Springs to talk with staff or communicate with the board.”

As for that aforementioned fundraising challenge: The DHCD is currently facing an estimated budget shortfall of roughly $3 million in order to service the new zones completely and in their entirety.

“At the end of the day, it’s certainly our goal to match the funds currently available in the existing districts (roughly $3.5 million) to provide services in the new districts,” Christensen said. “Ideally, it would be nice if we could hypothetically receive the same allocation of property taxes from the expanded district residents as we currently get from district residents. That would be neat and simple.”

Last summer, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors turned down a request from the DHCD to receive a portion of county property taxes collected from the annexed zones’ residents, as has been the case in the previously existing districts. The Board of Supervisors may re-examine the question now that Measure BB has passed.

“We’ve got our backs against the wall in the sense of developing funding,” Christensen said. “First and foremost was to get the measure passed to approve the expansion. Now we have to address additional funding sources. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be up to the new board. We’ll have three new board members come January, with new thoughts and ideas that might come to play in helping to further the fundraising.”

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