Clayton County commission Vice-Chairwoman Shana Rooks, left, and Commissioner Gail Hambrick, right, debate whether to delay a proposed SPLOST vote because of a plan to use tax funds to help Southern Regional Medical Center on Tuesday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
JONESBORO — The Clayton County Board of Commissioners was not scheduled to deal with the upcoming Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax this week, but the tax reared its head anyway.
Commissioner Gail Hambrick asked her colleagues to postpone the referendum from May 20 until November. She’s seeking the delay because of an emerging issue involving a large financial request from Southern Regional Medical Center officials.
The hospital is asking the county to help it out financially because of debts it is incurring by providing care to patients who can’t afford it. The county may include bond payments to the proposed 2015 SPLOST to provide that assistance.
Hambrick said SPLOST funds, which could range from $50 million to $75 million, alone may not be enough to help out the hospital. As much as $8 million may need to be raised from other sources, she said.
“Before they are asked to vote on this question, transparency dictates that the people of this county know if this board is planning to raise property taxes to provide the additional $8 million request by the hospital,” said Hambrick.
The commission is expected to vote March 4 on a SPLOST project list that will presented to voters for approval. Although it was believed the issue could come up this week, but it was not on the agenda. Therefore, when Hambrick brought it up during a point of personal privilege, it came as somewhat of a surprise.
She explained she was making her comments now, however, because she would not be in attendance at the March 4 meeting.
But her request to delay the referendum until the general election in November provoked a debate with Vice-Chairwoman Shana Rooks, who said commissioners had plenty of time to review information about the hospital. She also said putting off a vote until November put the hospital at risk.
“Is it your proposal that we let the hospital close?” Rooks asked.
“No, we do not want the hospital to collapse, but I would like us to take more time than May to explain this to the citizens and to have a clear understanding for myself about what kind of plan will be in place,” said Hambrick. “Right now, I don’t know of any plan that’s in place except to give them maybe $50 million and then they will still be in debt.”
The reason why the Southern Regional issue is such a concern to commissioners is because several of them see it as an issue of whether the county wants to have a hospital. If the county doesn’t use SPLOST funds to pay off any bonds taken out to help the hospital, the burden could be put on the backs of taxpayers through a property tax increase.
The hospital issue is already shifting what the SPLOST project list will look like. Because the debt payments are expected to be on the list, other projects whose chances of getting included were already iffy — such as the controversial proposed civic arena — will likely be left off the list presented to voters.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Rooks said a SPLOST vote that includes the hospital debt payments would give commissioners an idea on where residents sit on the issue.
“What’s important about the SPLOST happening in May is that the citizens can tell us whether or not they want a hospital,” said Rooks. “That’s what it boils down to. It’s important for us to know sooner rather than later in the event that there has to be some sort of tax increase.”
Rooks also said commissioners have individually participated in “several meetings” with Southern Regional officials to discuss the hospital’s financial situation.
As it stands, the county will likely have to take the money out of its share to pay off the debt. Hambrick said the county will not receive help from its seven cities, which also receive SPLOST funds, because they have not agreed to give up any part of their shares to help the hospital.
“I would like to take this point of personal privilege to express my strong opposition to moving forward with this proposal without having developed a solid plan to which the cities contribute and which actually save the hospital from financial collapse,” said Hambrick.
The proposed SPLOST list that will be presented to voters is expected to be set by commissioners at their March 4 meeting.