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BOC shoots down support of hospital bond

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) has voted 3-2 against backing a $40 million bond for Southern Regional Medical Center (SRMC).

The board's failure to guarantee the hospital's financial security was punctuated by a heated discussion between a staffer and one commissioner at the Tuesday meeting, suggesting a lack of confidence in the county's own financial footing.

Discussions over the county's finances broke down after the county's finance director, Angela Jackson, was asked by Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell to give an impromptu report on the county's financial status.

Bell, other commissioners, Jackson, and the county's recently-hired financial advisor, Ed Wall, squabbled over the amount of money in the county's reserves, as well as the county's progress in satisfactorily submitting its FY 2007 audit report to the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts.

Until recently, commissioners operated on the premise that they had $42 million in reserve, but a finding shows there is only $20 million.

"We have submitted everything that we need to submit to the state," said Jackson. She said the county is on track in regards to clearing up financial discrepancies, and that the county finance department is waiting on the state and the county's auditors to agree on certain "wording issues" in the audit report.

Unless the state auditing agency approves the report, Clayton County will be barred from receiving grant funds from the state -- a problem which could deny the county from potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"There is a conflict between the state and auditors ... Right now, we can't do anything else," said Jackson, the finance director. "We're simply in a waiting mode for them to resolve the conflict."

When asked by Commissioner Michael Edmondson for his professional opinion as to whether the county should back the $40 million bond for the hospital, Wall said that he didn't have confidence in the county's financial records.

"I can't get a handle on the county's finances," said Wall. "It appears that the general fund [reserve] balance fell from $42 million to $20 million. A year to date, the reports that Miss Jackson gave Chairman Bell, that I reviewed, showed that revenues were about $30 million and expenses were about $50 million, so we spent about $20 million more than we took in.

"If it were me, I would want to make sure the county finances are good before we go forward," said Wall.

Commissioner Wole Ralph accused Bell of failing to communicate the county's financial issues with the rest of the board. In addition, he accused Wall of giving "bad information," and called for Wall's resignation.

"I don't have a problem about the notion of having a conversation," about the county's finances," said Ralph. "I do have a problem with the way this has been brought to the board. If you have a conversation with Miss Jackson about giving a report at 6:12 p.m., then you should be on the phone with the commissioners at 6:13 p.m.," Ralph told Bell.

Accusations flew back and forth. "No, I won't resign," Wall replied to Ralph. "You seem to love to argue. You're making it about me."

"I apologize for the madness you saw, but I have been trying for weeks and months to have an open discussion about this matter," Bell told a news reporter, after the meeting. "I believe that any member of this government should be prepared to tell us where they are, on any subject, at anytime," he said.

Ed Bonn, president and CEO of the hospital, made an impassioned, but unsuccessful, plea for the $40 million bond. "We've been very responsible managing our money," he said. He said an earlier statement that the hospital had lost $83 million this year was a "misstatement." The number, he explained, is associated with the amount of charity services the hospital has given to the community in the last year. The hospital is financially "solvent," he said.

Bell, Edmonson, and Commissioner Virginia Gray, voted against guaranteeing the bond. All expressed concern about putting Clayton County taxpayers' at risk, while the county's finances are in question.

"I understand the urgency of this for the people who use the hospital," said Edmondson. "I just feel like we are rushing into this. I feel like we can add some security to the taxpayer."

Bonn said the hospital is in "no imminent danger" of closing. However, he said other options, such as federal funding might be needed to stabilize its reserves.

"We thought we had a good proposal," said Bonn. "The hospital is doing the heavy lifting with its reserves. We're just asking the county to support it with their bond rating. We do not anticipate layoffs, or cuts in services," he said.

Bell said he is willing to go back to the table before the end of the year to find a solution for the hospital that keeps county taxpayers in mind.

"My mother is there, right now, in critical care," said Bell. "I truly want to support them, but I am not willing to put the taxpayers' money on the line."