09/09/09 — Duplin weighs hospital lease bid

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Duplin weighs hospital lease bid

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on September 9, 2009 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE - The Duplin County commissioners will seek further legal counsel before moving forward with a proposal to lease Duplin General Hospital to another health care system, board members decided Tuesday.

"Let's do it right to start with, rather than get into it and say 'oops'," Commissioner David Fussell said.

Commissioner Zettie Williams was also hesitant for the board to take any immediate action about the possible lease.

"If we have an attorney that's not sure, we need to say stop and take a look at it," she said.

Commissioner Reginald Wells asked what kind of timetable the board would place on making a decision and how long it might take a lawyer to guide the process.

"I don't see where we could put one on it," Chairman Cary Turner said.

Seeking outside legal counsel will not be cheap, warned county attorney Wendy Sivori.

Ms. Sivori reported she looked into the possibility of the county hiring the services of a law firm experienced in handling hospital leases and was quoted a rate as high as $425 per hour.

"I can't even estimate how many hours this may take," Ms. Sivori said.

Hospital board members and hospital President Harvey Case attended the meeting to answer questions about the possible lease.

The hospital's employees will likely keep their jobs, although they would be employees of the new system, and there would still be local input into how the hospital is run, Case said.

"Most of the time, you'll see employees protected," he said.

The county owns the building and land, but Duplin General Hospital Inc. owns the contents of the building. There is currently a 10-year lease agreement between the county and the hospital group, but seeking a new lease would require ending the old one. The hospital board would agree to end the current lease, signed in 2004, if a new lease is sought, board members told the commissioners.

University Health Systems, which currently manages the hospital, is one entity that has expressed interest in leasing Duplin General, hospital officials reported.

But time is limited. The fiscal year for hospitals begins Oct. 1, and the process of setting up a lease takes months. If the board does not proceed with the plans, the hospital board might even have to return to the commissioners to request money to be able to keep the hospital open, board member Thomasina Williams warned the commissioners.

"The time frame is significant for several reasons," she said.

However, the sour economy could affect the response from hospital entities, Ms. Williams said.

Despite the hospital board's push to move forward, the commissioners voted unanimously to defer any action until the county seeks the advice of an attorney on the issue.

Once the lease process begins, it cannot be stopped, Ms. Sivori said.

In other business, the commissioners examined ways to approach charging farmers the $90 fee, charged to all businesses, to allow them to use county solid waste sites. The board discussed how to define who would qualify as a farmer and who would not for the purpose of paying the fee.

Farmers must be considered businesses in this situation, according to information from the Institute of Government, Ms. Sivori said.

"Is there any way to break that down, because no one up here wants to harm a farmer," said Commissioner Frances Parks.

County Manager Mike Aldridge suggested to determine who would pay the fee by using a list based on land use classification. Property owners with land designated as farm use would be billed for the chance to use the solid waste sites, avoiding the need to examine every farmer's solid waste site use individually.

But "it's going to be embarrassing to send these to some farmers and not others," said Commissioner Zettie Williams.

The board requested that Aldridge continue to look into the matter.

Wells also called for a discussion on procedures for setting the meeting agenda for board meetings.

"It's a serious problem and it's going to get worse if we don't discuss it," Wells said.

The county commissioners do not utilize the staff, such as the county manager, as they should, he argued, and people seeking to address the board should first be vetted by the county manager and the board chairman.

"We don't use our manager," Wells said. "A lot of folk who come up here, we don't need them to be up here."

Fussell was on the agenda and addressed the board regarding involuntary annexation. North Carolina is one of seven states in the country that allows involuntary annexation, he said.

"I think the citizens that are being annexed should have a say," Fussell said.

Mrs. Williams and board Chairman Cary Turner both supported the statement.

"I think it should come to a vote by the people," Mrs. Williams said.