Third public hearing regarding a fee for Candler County Hospital

The audience hears Dr. J. Dorsey Smith (seated at left) at the third public meeting.

After the third and final hearing, commissioners voted on Tuesday, Nov. 22, to assess a $90 per parcel fee to satisfy the county’s $4.6 million debt incurred on behalf of Candler County Hospital.

This hearing followed two previous hearings in which attendees were vocal in voicing their support of and opposition to the hospital itself and in regards to being taxed for the hospital’s debt.

The Nov. 22 meeting was again a standing room only event at the commissioners’ office.

This time, the meeting began with Bob Jones’ adamant response: “The voters said no. This is putting a band-aid on a wound that needs major surgery. Just close the hospital.”

Chris Billingsley then spoke on behalf of the hospital and its benefit to property owners of the community.

“Everything is worth more because of the hospital here,” Billingsley said. Because of that, he reasoned, commissioners should not charge a fee on 911 addresses only, as had been previously proposed, but suggested that fees be assessed on all parcels. Because a $100 fee for each 911 addresses would generate about $470,000, that would not  cover the $540,000 in annual loan payments. However, as Billingsley pointed out, by assessing a fee on each of the 6800 parcels in the county, “That will pay off the debt much faster and not just be a band aid.”

A former health care worker herself, Suzanne Zavara said the local hospital has “been in trouble a long time. It doesn’t seem that any (previous plans for the hospital) have been working. If the county is still under, we have to pay that debt,” she said. However, regarding additional assistance for the hospital, she said, “I am not against helping something that has a chance to make it but we can’t keep adding to our taxes.”

Questions followed regarding why the county took out loans on behalf of the hospital in the first place. County Attorney Kendall Gross responded by saying that the bond validation process was all done as a public hearing.

“It was all made public,” he said, stating that no one came forward in opposition of the debt at that time. “It is a matter of not wanting the information when it is presented.” This, he said, is “an issue people ought to be interested in year round.”

Dr. Dorsey Smith, who has been involved with Candler County Hospital for over 40 years, said, “It was in the black when other counties were in the red. All rural hospitals are suffering and have to have tax relief.” If the hospital does not survive, he said, “$46 million will be thrown out of this county.” He urged the audience to consider the chaos that would cause for the local community.

“I think we are all spoiled because we have a marvelous healthcare center here,” said Pernal Franklin. “Others have had to put in to their hospitals and we have not.” Franklin reminded the group that the hospital has over 150 employees and contributes over $45 million annually to the local economy.

“If we don’t support the hospital, we will still owe this debt and owe for indigent care and our taxes will be higher,” he said.

Greg Strickland advised that, like Billingsley, he would like to see a per parcel fee instead of a fee per 911 address. “The hospital benefits every property, so all parcels should pay,” he said.

Betty Williams and her husband, Hugh Williams, both voiced strong opposition to the hospital, highlighting personal negative experiences at the facility.

If there is to be a hospital in this county, Mrs. Williams said, “People need a realistic expectation they can see a doctor, that tests will be run that will be beneficial and they need to know that people care.”

Later, after listening to other comments, Mrs. Williams said, “I do not object to supporting the hospital and having a good hospital, but we need to do something to have a good hospital.”

“This is throwing good money after bad,” said Mr. Williams. “This hospital is a bottomless pit.”

Sally Powell, an RN with the hospital, asked the audience to consider Tattnall County’s hospital. “That hospital was closed three times. Now look at it,” she said, “it is flourishing because the people in that county believed.” She then asked everyone to consider communities such as McRae and Spart, where the hospitals have closed and the communities are now “destitute.”

Kym Bowman, who coordinates the hospital’s swing bed program, said, “I have seen how it helps people and puts them on their feet.” Although she does not live in Candler County, she added, “I spend the majority of my money in Candler County.”

As a recent patient in the ER, Glenn Deal announced, “It’s worth the $100 (fee). People are not against the hospital but how the system has been done.”

Marsha Colson, a city councilwoman, said, “I understand the gravity of the situation. But a non-binding referendum is nothing but an opinion survey. Nobody is bound by the results. It is critical that we address the situation.” To the commissioners, she said, “I don’t care how you do it, you have to save this hospital. If you do support it, you risk the anger of some, if you don’t support it, you risk angering some. This affects the livelihood of 11,000 people. 1500 (voting against the measure) is not a majority in my opinion.”

Nathan Takas, who originally voted against the hospital referendum, told commissioners that after further research he now has changed his stance.

“The financially sound decision,” he said, “is to keep the hospital open.”

“You have my blessing,” Takas continued, although he suggested that all parcels have a fee imposed instead of 911 addresses. 

Alton Slater suggested that the commissioners go back to the millage rate to satisfy the debt and encouraged commissioners to collect the money and apply it entirely to the principal while letting the hospital continue to pay the monthly payments as a way to satisfy the debt faster.

Kelton Cook also voiced his support of the hospital, saying, “The vote was an opinion, nothing binding. We can keep talking but we put responsible people around this table,” he said of the commissioners. “We voted them in to look at the needs of everything in this county.”

Mark Bland, who is a member of the hospital authority, said, “We can’t afford not to have that hospital. Without it, Metter would dry up to nothing, but it has to have the support of this county. I am willing to pay.”

To the commissioners, Jean Melton Furr said, “You are representing us. It is up to you to make that important decision.”

After listening to all comments, commissioners thanked the audience for coming. David Robinson then read a statement he had written detailing his thoughts on the hospital. 

“The bottom line, I think there’s been a lot of waste and poor management going on at that hospital ever since Cal Rivenbark left the scene and all the old-time doctors retired and passed away ... I will begrudgingly vote for a user fee for parcels of land to pay back the money we threw in the hole trying to save the hospital, but will not pay one more dime for that venture unless we can find some way to get state and federal help with the hospital.”

After this statement, the vote was taken with four voting in favor of a $90 per parcel fee. Despite his statement otherwise, Robinson was the lone vote of opposition.

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