After a discussion in which some justices said they do not believe taxpayer money is being well spent at Ashley County Medical Center, two members of the Ashley County Quorum Court voted against extending the lease of the county-owned facility to the foundation that operates it.
Justices Ronnie Wheeler and Hiram Taylor voted against extending the lease, while justices Rhonda Pippen and Ricky Sims abstained. The remaining seven justices voted for the extension.
Ashley County owns the ACMC facility, but the Crossett Health Foundation has a 10-year lease on “the hospital and supporting facilities, equipment, assets and accounts,” according to the ordinance adopted Tuesday. Every year, the Quorum Court reviews the lease and extends it by another year so that — even though the initial lease was signed in 1998 — the lease will now be valid through Sept. 15, 2028.
Crossett Health Foundation has not defaulted on the lease, but Wheeler said Tuesday he has concerns that the hospital’s administration is not being transparent about how it spends the quarter-cent sales tax voters adopted for maintenance and capital improvements at the hospital. The tax was last renewed in February 2016.
“The citizens need to be aware that I don’t believe the quarter-cent sales tax is being spent with good stewardship,” Wheeler said, telling the court that when the hospital administration asked for the tax, they agreed to spend half of the annual tax revenues and to put half into savings.
The administration also agreed to send the Quorum Court a monthly report of the projects, costs and balances associated with the tax funds, Wheeler said.
That hasn’t happened, he said, telling the court that of $8 million collected over the years, less than $70,000 remained earlier this year.
“I believe there needs to be some more money collected in that account before any more is added to that building,” Wheeler said. “The citizens of this county own that building.”
During the discussion, County Judge Jim Hudson said a review of the minutes from the meeting in which the hospital reportedly agreed to such a stipulation show that it is not in the ordinance but that the hospital had agreed to submit the reports.
Taylor suggested that the Quorum get the hospital administration’s attention by adopting an ordinance requiring such reports, but Justice Carlton Lawrence said such a move may not be necessary.
“I wouldn’t mind if our attorney studied this (to see) if the hospital is meeting their legal obligations,” he said. “I want someone who has read the documents and is a legal authority to tell me if the hospital is meeting their obligations.”
Justice Jeff Langley, who serves as the Quorum’s representative on the hospital board, said the issue is that the building belongs to the county, but “if there is not enough money in a bank account to replace a $1 million roof, the county can not afford it.”
“There has to be a long-term plan for that building.”
The Quorum’s attorney, Richard Byrd, said the hospital could not operate without the quarter-cent sales tax.
“They are not putting it in a pot,” he said. “They are making capital improvements as they go.”
Lawrence told the Quorum that as far as he knew, the money was being spent appropriately.
Langley said he wanted to clarify that he was not saying the money was being spent inappropriately.
“I am saying money needs to be set back,” he said.
No representatives of the hospital were at the meeting Tuesday.
After the meeting, a hospital spokesperson said, ““The voters of Ashley County approved 0.25 percent sales tax to be used for paying the cost of maintaining the hospital building, equipment, and related capital improvements. We are one of 25 hospitals receiving a sales tax and of those 25 hospitals, there are three receiving a 0.25 percent sales tax. The remaining 22 hospitals all receive a sales tax greater than 0.25 percent.”
In other news:
-Justice Bill Rawls asked if the county could impose stiffer penalties on heavy log truck operators who use county roads when they should be using designated logging roads. The trucks are damaging the county roads, he said.
“I would like something with more teeth,” Rawls said.
-Justice Corliss McCain said the Quorum should meet soon to start planning the budget for next year.
“It is the middle of September and we haven’t even started,” she said.
Taylor said he would like to have at least a month to review a proposed budget before it could be adopted, telling the Quorum that last year he felt like he did not have enough time.
McCain said she tried to keep everyone abreast of what was being discussed as it developed in the past.
“We can try to get it out sooner, before the meeting,” she said.
-The Quorum declined to adopt an agreement that would allow the county to transport its leachate water from the county landfill to the City of Hamburg’s treatment facility.
The justices said some of the language in the proposal — including a stipulation that the county would haul gravel for the city — needed clarification.
The justices also questioned a clause that called for the county to pay the city $1,000 every month.
McCain said the city is behind on payments it owes the county for dispatching services.
The justices said they might be willing to work out a reciprocal agreement with the city to allow a reduction in dumping fees at the landfill in exchange for treating the water.