County approves 2016 budget with hospital deal in the works

Quorum Court, Wheeless hopeful for announcement Friday

By Mark Randall news@theeveningtimes.com

Crittenden County Quorum Court approved an $18.5 million budget for 2016, but added in an extra $75,000 at the last minute to cover any expenses for the hospital building in case a deal for a new provider isn’t reached. A deal to announce a new hospital could come on Friday. Talk has centered around a new health care provider inking a pact to build a new 25-to-30 bed hospital utilizing funds from the voter approved one cent sales tax. County Judge Woody Wheeless has been in talks with a new operator and has also been looking for a new tenant to rent the existing hospital building, possibly for a long term nursing care facility. Wheeless gave the court members a heads up to be ready for a possible announcement. “It’s very important that if we call you, that you be here,” Wheeless told the court. “A potential exists that we may need to have one (special meeting). We do not know yet.” A deal for Nashville-based Ameris to lease the former Crittenden Regional Hospital and invest $15 million to re-open the emergency room fell apart after the company was unable to make the numbers work. The sales tax, which will start being collected Jan. 1, would generate $30 million over five years, but can only be used to maintain and equip the existing hospital building. Voters will likely be asked to return to the polls during the March primary election to amend the language for the funds to be used for a new operator. The $30 million in debt left behind when CRH closed and declared bankruptcy — including a lien on the building — has been paid off. The 2016 budget did not include any funding to maintain the hospital building. Justice Vickie Robertson suggested the county budget $100,000 to cover any remaining costs for maintenance regardless of whether a deal is reached soon. “I think we need to be budgeting something because we are going to have utility bills for December that we won’t be paying until January,” Robertson said. “You’re still going to have some maintenance issues we will still have to cover.” The county had been paying about $100,000 a month to keep the utilities on, for security, and for insurance. “It makes sense,” Justice Lorenzo Parker said. “Unless we know something firm. And even then, you never can be sure.” Robertson said the county will still have a $27,000 utility bill to pay. “But even if we know something firm, it won’t be in January,” Robertson said. “We’re going to have some expenses.” County Treasurer Charlie Suiter suggested the justice do a monthly appropriation as needed. “That’s what I would prefer,” Suiter said. The court settled on adding in $75,000 rather than $100,000. “I think that is going to be more than enough,” Wheeless said. Suiter said the county’s finances are in good shape, but this year’s budget includes about a million dollars in extra expenses. The budget includes money for a new $400,000 heating and air system for the courthouse, a 3.8 percent raise for employees, and steep increases in workmen’s compensation insurance. The county is ahead of budget projections by about $122,000. “Things are still tight,” Suiter said. “We’re adding some unbelievable amounts that we didn’t have last year.” Wheeless thanked the court members for their hard work on the budget. “The budget went pretty smooth,” Wheeless said. “Looks like every department is under budget and will end the year that way. I think the budget process went smoother than I have ever seen it. You are to be commended for that because you put the work in to make it happen. Thank you for everything you have done the whole year. I think the county is moving forward and I’m grateful to each and every one of you.”

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