Quorum Court sets Feb. 1 deadline for lease deal with Baptist
By Mark Randall firstname.lastname@example.org
The Quorum Court will be getting a draft of the proposed lease with Baptist Memorial Health Care to build a new hospital this week in order to give them time to go over the details and make any changes before the Feb. 1 deadline. County Attorney Joe Rogers told the justices that he had already sent back some changes to Baptist and will be meeting with them later this week to discuss them. “I looked at the draft of the agreement and made my comments to them,” Rogers said. “I suggested some changes to it. We’re supposed to have a telephone conference about it.” Baptist is proposing to build a new $25 million, 50,000 square foot facility with 20 to 25 beds. The project will be aided by $30 million from a voter-approved one cent sales tax collected over the next five years. Baptist is the largest private health care provider in the region with 14 hospitals in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi and over 4,500 affiliated doctors. Construction would begin in July 2016 and would open in 2018. Rogers said there are three parts to the agreement – a lease for the land the hospital will be built on, the lease for the building, and the development agreement for the selection of the architect and construction bids. “They are all in the works and hopefully we will get them finalized in the latter part of the week,” Rogers said. But with a Feb. 1 deadline only just weeks away, several justices said they still have questions about the terms and wanted to see a copy now so they know what they will be voting on and agreeing too. “The devil is in the details,” said Justice Ronnie Sturch. “I specifically said I don’t want it to come down to two or three days before the agreement and we have no idea what is in it. I want it at least 10 or 15 days before to look at it. I don’t want to have to pass it to find out what is in it.” Justice Tyrone McWright agreed. “I need time to read it,” McWright said. “I can’t read all that legality in 24 hours.” Justice Vickie Robertson said she still was uncomfortable with Baptist insisting on owning the land it will be built on, citing problems from the last operators of the former Crittenden Regional Hospital who still own part of a parking lot. “Somebody help me understand,” Robertson said. “I know why it is in Baptist’s best interest to buy the land. But help me understand why it is in the county’s best interests for Baptist to buy the land. I don’t see that being a winning situation for us.” Under the terms of the agreement, Baptist will buy the land and pick the location and lease the ground to the county for $1 a year. Crittenden County would own the building and Baptist would then lease the hospital from the county for 25 years with two five year extension. Baptist would also have the option to buy the facility from the county after 10 years. Rogers said Baptist is insistent that they buy the land and pick the location where it will be built in order to keep local politics out of the decision. Baptist became entangled in a lawsuit in Oxford that went all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court because rival developers stalled the project for three years. “They didn’t want to get bogged down in political issues and a battle over where it is going to be,” Rogers said. “We were told from the get-go that h The location was a deal breaker. They were going to select the site.” Baptist has offered to sell the land back to the county at cost. Robertson said she is concerned that it gives Baptist too much control. “I feel that in the past we have been a little too trusting,” Robertson said. “We have not asked enough questions up front and were too trusting of the hospital board we had before. I don’t want to be too anxious and make a mistake that comes back to bite us years later. We may not be here. But someone else will have to struggle with that issue. Everything protects them. There is nothing protecting us. It’s too heavy on their side. I don’t see a balance.” Justice Ronnie Marconi said he is confident Baptist will pick a good location and doesn’t want to see that derail the deal. “We definitely need a hospital,” Marconi said. “I hate to let this go and then have to fight again to get someone to service the people of Crittenden County.” A $15 million deal with Ameris Health Systems to re-open the emergency room at the former Crittenden Regional Hospital which is owned by the county fell apart because of confusion about what the hospital tax money would be used for. Crittenden Regional Hospital closed in August 2014 and declared bankruptcy. McWright said no one distrusts Baptist. They just need to make sure they have all of the details first. “This is our second time,” McWright said. “Let’s slow down. Let’s think. Let’s do this one right.” “We all feel that way,” Justice Kenneth Cross told Marconi. “You’re right. We do need a hospital. We just want to make sure we are doing the right thing for Crittenden County. That’s what we are elected to do.” County Judge Woody Wheeless said the county put the Feb. 1 deadline in the agreement to protect the county by making sure they had a firm commitment from Baptist before asking residents to vote again on the tax. “If you recall, we couldn’t get Ameris to sign anything,” Wheeless said. “That’s why we put a date in there to make sure we do have things taken care of.” Sturch said he isn’t blaming Rogers or Baptist for not having it all in writing for them to see. However, he still wants time to read what is in the agreement and have Baptist present so they can answer any questions. “I’m not trying to be hard nosed,” Sturch said. “There are just a lot of details in that agreement that need to be looked at. This is an important issue facing the county – probably the most important one we’ve faced in a long time. I don’t want to have one or two days to look at it. It’s too important an issue to do that.” Rogers said he would give each justice a copy of the rough draft. “I will get you what we have and our suggested changes,” Rogers said. “There were just a couple.” The Quorum Court will meet before Feb. 1 to vote.