County voters approve ballot measures to redirect hospital tax, fund bond

Measure passes by overwhelming margin on third go-round

By John Rech news@theeveningtimes.com

Crittenden County moved two very important steps closer to getting a brand new hospital after residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of redirecting a one-cent sales tax and to a fund a construction bond in support of a new Baptist Memorial Health facility. Both the tax and the bond were being treated as “must pass” to secure Baptist’s participation in the new BMH-Crittenden project. The tax passed easily with 5,323 voting in favor of the ordinance to redirect the tax funds to 1,618 against. The bond initiative returns showed similar margins, with 6,221 voting “for” the bond, and 1,245 against. County Judge Woody Wheeless, who worked tirelessly to find a new operator for the hospital, said he was pleased by the outcome, considering this was the third time voters had to go to the polls to settle this issue. “We’re excited,” Wheeless said. “The people have shown one more time that the hospital is very important to our community. Having this type of a victory just goes to show how badly they want a hospital here.” BMH held an option pending the election results to purchase 25 acres on 7th Street in West Memphis north if the Interstate Interchange. Development plans aim to open a thirty bed hospital and emergency room in two years. The design allows for expansion as demands for services and physician participation require. The bond provide a $25 million dollar construction fund for the hospital. The tax will generate an estimated $25 to $30 million a year over the next five years. Wheeless said Baptist can now move forward with building the new hospital and it also looks like the county is close to securing a new tenant for the old hospital building as well. The Department of Arkansas Community Correction has expressed an interest is locating a 350 bed rehabilitation drug and alcohol treatment center for nonviolent female inmates. If approved by the Quorum Court the deal with ACC would bring 138 new jobs and pump $6 million into the local economy. It would also free the county from paying nearly $100,000 a month for utilities, security and insurance on the vacant buildings. “It is a good opportunity to create some new jobs and we are ready to move on to the next step and break ground,” Wheeless said. Voters first approved the one percent five year sales tax to help the Friends of the Hospital campaign in their efforts to save the now defunct Crittenden Regional Hospital. CRH struggled financially and endure physician attrition and was no longer able to keep the 400 bed hospital busy. Two fires in 2014 evidently gave the already financially struggling hospital more than they could manage in remodeling and CRH closed in August 2014 when it couldn’t pay for Emergency room supplies. Next the county hoped to turn the keys over Ameris for a December 2015 reopening at the county hospital. But Ameris reportedly bolted when they realized they hadn’t wrestled all the controls from the county. Wheeless thanked the public for their continued support and said in the end the county got a better hospital partner with Baptist. “At one time we thought we didn’t have any opportunities out there at all,” Wheeless said. “And now we have Baptist. We’ve been blessed. I owe it all to the public who got behind me and believed in what the county was trying to do. They have shown that the need is there and they want it. It is out job now to make it happen.” Just over 7,700 ballots were cast in the super Tuesday primary election, a little over 27 percent of registered voters. Mark Randall contributed to this report.

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