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‘Join In’ may seek to sue county commission, hospital board

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By Angye Morrison

A local group of residents is threatening to file a class action lawsuit against the Gadsden County Board of Commissioners and Gadsden Hospital Inc. if the hospital isn't opened as the 25-bed facility they feel the citizens in the county were promised when they voted for and passed the half-cent sales tax last August.

Sam Palmer and Sam Hawkins, speaking on behalf of Join In, the organization behind the lawsuit, said when citizens voted for the tax, they thought they were getting a 25-bed hospital, much like what was in place prior to Gadsden Community Hospital's closing in 2005.

“The citizens said, 'We don't care what it costs; we are willing to pay for it. That's why we voted for the tax,'” said Hawkins.

The main bone of contention is that the commissioners and the hospital board are making a “deliberate attempt” to keep the hospital from opening.

“The commission has not followed through with the original plan to get the hospital open on time. In that regard, it is a deliberate attempt to not open the hospital on time,” said Hawkins.

Hawkins added that one of the major issues is the firing of Ajax Construction and the hiring of Childers Construction, due to cost.

“The reason they fired Ajax,” Hawkins said, referring to the county, “is because they felt the cost would be too high. But if you look at all the figures from the proposals, you're looking at $8.4 million from Childers. If you look at all the components that Ajax was (going to put) into the hospital, the add-ons come up to more than $9.7 million.”

Hawkins added that the proposal from Ajax would have had the hospital ready by next month at a cost of $9.7 million, and it would have been ready to go with 25 beds, operating rooms and physician office space.

The actual figures, according to the contracts, were: Childers, $8,453,720; and Ajax, $9.75 million.

Current construction at the hospital, under the hammer of Childers Construction, is expected to have the facility open by June 21, with four beds. The remaining beds can be added on in the coming years, utilizing funds from the half-cent tax.

“They're (commissioners and hospital board) doing all they can to not conform with what the citizens asked for,” said Palmer. “They're always talking about money. What the county commission said, and I was shocked by this, was that they would rather put money into the jail than into health care for the people. If they don't have the money for the hospital, where are they going to get money for these roads? For the jail?”

Getting and keeping the hospital open has been a regular topic of discussion in recent months at county commission meetings. Craig McMillan, chairman of the Gadsden Hospital Inc. Board of Directors, told commissioners recently, “I can tell you where the problem is. It's always going to be money. Even with the new performance, we'll be losing over $600,000 a year.”

Commissioners have also discussed the fact that nearly $250,000 is needed to buy furniture, $43,000 is needed to pay for facade changes to the front of the hospital building and, on top of those costs, there is the question of whether to purchase new or used X-ray and CAT scan equipment which, either way, will cost additional money – money which commissioners have said the county just doesn't have due to budget cuts and hard economic times. Commissioners have even looked at dipping into the hospital trust fund to provide funds for some of the costs associated just with getting the doors open.

Palmer and Hawkins said Join In’s attorney has advised them to take a wait-and-see approach, and wait for money to come in from the half-cent tax, to see how it is spent before pursuing the lawsuit.

Commission vice chair Doug Croley (Dist. 2) stated, via e-mail last week that, “Given that the county does not have adequate funds at this time to pay for a 25-bed acute care hospital, I would simply direct anyone considering personal involvement in a class action lawsuit to Florida statute 129.07 and 129.08, which state that it is unlawful for commissioners to overextend the county’s budget or vote to pay for “illegal claim or for excess indebtedness.”

“I have no intention of making any financial obligations that the county cannot afford to pay with or without threat of a lawsuit,” Croley said. “As for there being any valid issues involving the present hospital contractor, I am unaware of any.”

When contacted via e-mail, Gene Morgan, county commissioner, said he did not wish to comment. No other commissioner responded to the e-mail.

Editor’s Note: House Bill 873, which authorizes AHCA to extend the inactive license for 12 months for the hospital, passed in the House last Thursday. The bill, if it passes in the Senate, will give the county extra time to complete the facility, as well as find funding for the up-front associated costs.