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Kaiser Physician Supports Salem Tax to Expand Transit Options

Salem Health has aligned with the Salem Chamber of Commerce to strongly oppose this measure, which faces voters in early November.
October 21, 2015

With the battle over the Salem-Keizer transit tax heating up, one prominent physician who also sits on the board of Northwest Health Foundation, has vigorously come out in support of this payroll tax which will expand bus service to evenings and weekends.

“As a health practitioner with Kaiser Permanente, here’s what I know about how transit affects health,” Dr. Phillip Wu told The Lund Report.

“Communities are healthier when all people have better access to jobs, schools and services including healthcare,” he said. “Out of necessity disabled, economically disadvantaged, historically underserved people, and youth rely heavily on public transit to reach these community assets. Many cannot rely on a private automobile. These are also the very same groups most likely to experience health disparities and poor outcomes. Expanding the hours of transit service means fewer will be left without a critical lifeline.

“Kaiser Permanente believes that health is primarily determined by the places where people live, learn, work and play. Creating an accessible and well-functioning transit system is an important way to support the community and improve health,” he said.

A retired pediatric obesity specialist from Kaiser, Wu is currently working on broadening the scope of healthcare to include collaboration with community organizations and businesses to deal with healthcare disparities. While at Kaiser, Wu specialized in obesity prevention in children and promoting healthy living for families.

The payroll tax to expand public transit to evenings, weekends and holidays facing voters Nov. 3 has strong opposition – including Salem Health and the Salem Chamber of Commerce, which have argued that the tax shifts those dollars onto the backs of small business.

But the weight of the levy does not fall heavily on small businesses -- the median employer in the Salem transit district would pay just $169, and even for an employer with an annual payroll of $500,000, the annual tax would be $1,050. If voters approve the ballot measure, the plan is to roll out Saturday service starting next summer and other improvements to follow. The tax would levy 0.21 percent of a business’ annual payroll (approximately 2 cents for every $10 of payroll), and would bring in approximately $5 million per year.

“We asked the community what kind of service they wanted to see. The Moving Forward system improvement plan reflects that feedback,” said General Manager Allan Pollock. “But, in order to implement phase two, additional revenue is required.”

Salem Health Leads Opposition

Beyond a general antipathy toward paying taxes or supporting transit that is common among the Republican-leaning business group, opposition to the levy was led by Salem Health which despite a profit of $10.9 million, pays almost no taxes, because it is classified as a non-profit business. But since Salem Health is a large employer that must cover payroll taxes, it would be likely to contribute $600,000 to the payroll tax.

The Statesman-Journal ultimately did not allow its relationship with the Chamber of Commerce, nor its reliance on advertising from Salem Health to determine its opinion, arguing that "a flawed solution is better than no solution."

The editors called the absence of weekend service in the state capital "reprehensible" and the need "undeniable." Beyond the tri-county Portland metro area, Eugene, Bend, Corvallis, Albany, even Tillamook and Newport all have weekend bus service -- but not Salem.

Other Healthcare Leaders Lining Up

Wu isn’t the only healthcare leader backing this controversial tax measure. Tim Murphy, CEO of Bridgeway Recovery Services Inc., which provides substance abuse counseling and mental health therapy in the Salem area, came out in support in a recent letter to the Salem Statesman Journal.

“No one likes to pay additional taxes,” Murphy wrote. “Oregonians especially do not like to see any kind of tax increases, but Oregonians do want to see adequate services being provided. Services that both improve individuals’ lives and in this case improve business as well. While some argue that the tax burden falls disproportionally on local businesses, the benefits to the entire Salem-Keizer community seems to outweigh those concerns.

“For Bridgeway, a nonprofit that is excluded from the tax, the benefits are clear. Our patients will have increased access to treatment. The availability of Saturday service increases options for those patients and our staff. In addition to the improvements for our patients and staff, expanded bus service will improve our business as well.”

Patricia Williams reminded voters that Salem Health gave $50,000 to the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce to oppose this measure, adding, “Perhaps the money came instead from the $50,000 that Salem Hospital lobbied for and received from the transit district (that they are now undermining), with the promise to improve the hospital’s transportation needs,” in her letter to the Salem newspaper.

“Our largest private employer, Salem Hospital, is exempt from property taxes, as is state government, our largest public employer,” she wrote. “However, state government has been financially supporting transit districts voluntarily for decades, at three times the rate that Measure 24-388 would require. Homeowners support the bus system through property taxes. Salem Hospital’s position in this seems to indicate that they are content to remain an infrastructure freeloader.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Greg Ego, who owns commercial property in Salem, opposes the tax measure, saying “I am a small business owner, and it seems that agencies needing money believe we are an endless source of funds. In addition, there is no limit on how this tax can grow. I am vehemently opposed to a tax that can continue to increase without any input,” he told the Salem newspaper. “Public transit is useful and necessary, but I cannot afford to continue to ‘cough up a few more dollars’ every time an agency is short of funds.

Salem Health did not respond to media requests by press time.

Diane can be reached at [email protected].


Submitted by Donald Thieman on Wed, 10/21/2015 - 11:13 Permalink

The CoC's opposition is predictable, sad to say.  Salem Health's is a little harder to swallow.  The impact of public transit on health care access for those most in need is not debatable.  So for a healthcare organization to oppose this service expansion is on the face of it contrary to their mission.  At best it is along the lines of "yes, we support the idea, but not this way."  The CoC should, and Salem Health really must, propose an acceptable alternative in this situation, one that distributes the tax burden in a way more palatable to them.  Simple opposition does neither of them proud.

Don Thieman