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Hospital Bond Watchdog Panel Reorganizes

Sun, 09/26/2010 - 11:31pm
San Diego Business Journal

Keeping an eye on one government agencys coffers is part of the business at hand for a citizens oversight committee created four years ago to monitor officials and their allocation of bond funds at Grossmont Healthcare District.

At a time when municipal malfeasance on the order of the city of Bell has taxpayers in California worried, the committee chairman touts the group as the poster child for transparency in government, in this case the Grossmont Healthcare District.

While the name of the group may seem imposing and a bit wordy, the Proposition G Independent Citizens Bond Oversight Committee is decidedly brass tacks when it comes to its charge: providing accountability of money spent by elected officials responsible for $247 million in taxpayer-approved bonds for capital improvements at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, one of the areas largest employers.

At a recent board meeting, both oversight committee chairman Ernest Ewin and Dr. James Johnson were re-elected to serve as chairman and vice chairman, respectively, for one-year terms ending June 30, 2011.

Additionally, La Mesa resident Peggy Gaul, director of imaging services at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, has been appointed as the hospitals representative to the Proposition G Independent Citizens Bond Oversight Committee.

With a 30-year career in health care, Gaul has experience with the selection, installation and implementation of medical equipment, including MRI, cardiac catheterization labs and diagnostic radiology equipment.

This experience has provided me with an understanding of the scope and complexities of health care projects, said Gaul, who will replace Dr. Peter Hanson, an orthopedic surgeon who previously served as the hospitals representative on the ICBOC group.

Taxpayer Representation

An executive with the Grossmont College Foundation and a La Mesa City Council member, Ewin said the group was created to represent the taxpayer and (help them) understand the process involved in how projects are budgeted, bid and then constructed by the districts five-person elected board.

The committee issues a midyear report to the community to update citizens on projects completed so far, thanks to money from their property taxes.

In addition, a recent report explained how the districts board of directors took action resulting in the protection of about $85 million in taxpayer money, which was generated by the August 2007 sale of general obligation bonds. The money had initially been invested with Citigroup, the financial giant that has suffered billions of dollars in write-downs due to losses from the mortgage crisis.

Because of concerns over Citigroups financial condition, the district board opted for early termination of its agreement with Citigroup and subsequently invested the funds in safer government-backed bond funds with Union Bank.

While the committee will eventually cease to exist, Ewin said bringing new members and leaders on board helps keep perspectives fresh.

Theyre supposed to oversee the elected body of officials to make sure theyre using the money right, explained Barry Jantz, chief executive officer of the district, the landlord of the hospital, which leases out operations to Sharp HealthCare.

Jantz said the 11 volunteers have a diverse skill set, with experience in project management, large-scale construction operations and finance and medicine. Members also include representatives from Sharp Grossmont Hospital, as well as designees from the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council and the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

Each one of them brings a unique perspective to the process, Jantz said.

Ensuring a Transparent Process

There was no organized opposition and no ballot argument against Proposition G filed with the county Registrar of Voters.

In order to ensure a transparent process related to the spending on infrastructure improvements, the public agency promised to set up an independent oversight committee prior to the approval of the measure, which passed with 77 percent of the vote, Jantz said.

Since its passage in June 2006, construction has been completed on a $41 million build-out of three upper floors located directly above the hospitals existing Emergency and Critical Care Center. The 75,000-square-foot expansion features 90 new patient beds, including 24 intensive care beds on one floor and 66 medical/surgical beds on two other floors.

The economic impact derived from the first phase of construction during a recession cannot be denied, said Ewin.

At the end of the day, its also about jobs, said Ewin, referring to some area subcontractors and vendors benefiting from the hospital remodeling and construction through 2014.

The hospital is very important to La Mesa and East County in terms of meeting health care needs as well as adding jobs to the work force, he added.

Complex Health Care Projects

The process related to the scope and complexities of health care projects has been an education for all the volunteers.

Hospital construction is so detailed and rigorous, Ewin said. Whats exciting is seeing sophisticated computer systems that show what happens (to the overall project) if you move something as simple as a pipe.

Graphically, its a lot of fun to see how it all shapes up, he added, referring to projects such as construction of a new diagnostic and treatment center and central energy plant, along with remodeling of the hospitals east tower.

An additional Proposition G project will be the construction of the Dr. John W. Hardbeck Health Occupations Training Center, which features classroom and lab space for training future generations of nurses and allied health professionals.

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