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Despite 'fast-track,' hospital construction start date unclear

August 05, 2005|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

HAGERSTOWN

gregs@herald-mail.com

Despite the fact that Washington County government officials have made the successful move of the county's only acute-care hospital one of their top priorities, the date for when Washington County Hospital's replacement will move off the blueprints into the ground still is unknown.

There are several reasons for the uncertainty, including the fact that the Hagerstown City Council holds sway over some utilities the hospital would use, and land-use questions remain unanswered.

James Hamill, the hospital's top official, on Thursday said it would be "presumptuous" to say when construction would begin.

"I don't want to presume (a start date) until I hear from other people what their time frames have to be," said Hamill, president and CEO of Washington County Health System, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the hospital.

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Asked what are the next steps hospital officials face to move the project along, he said "I think we need to get back together for our next meeting," referring to a set of biweekly meetings planned with county officials.

After two years of consideration by state health-care regulators and a bitter political struggle between hospital officials and the City of Hagerstown, the hospital project overcame a major hurdle in June.

The Maryland Health Care Commission on June 16 approved the hospital's application for a certificate of need, finding that the $235 million project was cost-effective and financially feasible. The new hospital would go on a site near Robinwood Medical Center.

But more policy decisions remain.

Economic development


This week, County Administrator Rodney M. Shoop said county staff had their first meeting last week with hospital officials in an effort to fast-track the project. He also said he believed the project would bring $60 million in economic development money to the county.

On Thursday, he clarified that his claim of $60 million in economic development value was "a guesstimate" that he based on the economic development value of the county's runway project at Hagerstown Regional Airport.

Shoop said a contractor for that project said $60 million in expenditures would bring about $15 million in economic development value - including wages and material purchases.

Using the ratio of that project, Shoop said Thursday, it's probably a good guess to think that one-quarter of the value of the hospital project, about $60 million, would be spent in Washington County.

Knowing exactly how much added economic value the hospital would bring to the county would take further analysis, though, Shoop said.

The efforts to fast-track the project so far included a team of county managers, Shoop and top hospital officials including Hamill and the health system's finance director.

Bob Mandley said last week's "fast-track" meeting covered several topics including the effect of the new excise tax and adequate public facilities ordinance on the project, and planning issues.

Shoop said he expected a decision in the next two or so weeks from hospital officials on how they would approach the land-use issue - either going through the county zoning appeals process or requesting a zoning change.

Mandley said one "big issue" not addressed at the meeting was how to get the hospital hooked up to the city's sewer system. No city officials were at the meeting. At least one city official - City Water and Sewer Manager David Shindle - was invited, but did not attend the meeting.

The City Council took the stance July 19 that it would not handle any land-use issues dealing with the hospital, and it would not directly deal with hospital officials on the sewer hookup issue, but rather deal with local politicians.

Sewer politics


Council members said providing access to the city's sewer system ultimately would be a political decision because the city is under state-mandated restraints in providing sewer system access because of numerous violations.

The sewer-access question was taken up Wednesday in a private "two-plus-two" discussion between Commissioners Doris J. Nipps and James F. Kercheval and Councilmen Lewis C. Metzner and Kristin B. Aleshire. The group has occasional meetings to discuss city and county policies, but are not required to announce their meetings because there is not a consensus of either official body.

While some solutions were discussed, including looking at changing the sewage flow transfer agreement between the city and the county, the group didn't come to a conclusion, Kercheval said.

Hamill said he did not have any comment on the City Council's most recent stance, but said he continues to be concerned about rising project costs due to inflation.

Shoop said he had watched the council and the hospital's interaction over the move, but after the City Council took its stance in July, it "was obvious ... that the city's not going to deal with it and we need to work with the hospital to get this project moving forward."

Shoop also said upon further consideration of the project and its cost, "It just became very apparent that this is now a huge economic development package for Washington County."

Aleshire questioned Shoop's view of the project.

"The county's approach to this project is to look at the economic benefit it will gain rather than the effectiveness of health care" the hospital will deliver, Aleshire said.

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