The Seiver County Quorum Court, at a July 1 special meeting, took no action in their quest to bring forward a vote for a proposed 1 cent sales tax to build a hospital. According to the county’s Rural Development chair, Dr. Steve Cole, too many “hurdles” made it apparent that the costs they needed to provide the court and taxpayers wouldn’t be immediately available. The court had hoped to vote on a resolution by their July 8 meeting so that a ballot measure could be voted on by county residents at a special election in September, which, if passed, would allow the county to start building in late fall of this year.
The primary problem, according to Cole, is that in order for the hospital to receive Critical Access designation from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the hospital must be built at least 35 miles from the next nearest critical access hospital. With Howard Memorial Hospital in Nashville less than 35 miles from De Queen and McCurtain Memorial Hospital in Idabel 35 miles from the city, the closest the city can build will be on Highway 71 at De Queen Lake Road. Cole said that county leaders had contacted their representative in Washington, D.C., but had been told there were no waivers being allowed to build the hospital closer to town.
“It’s not looking good,” he told the court, noting that they had not given up yet. “CMS guidelines are very strict and very clear.”
Cole said that the site of the former hospital, which was built in the 1960s, was not an option as it would never meet current CMS standards and that it was less than the 35 mile distance required. He said that the county had applied for a new license and while it could first receive an acute care license, later converting it to a critical access license, the reimbursement rates would be different than the costs they have currently estimated.
Despite the obstacles, Cole said he was “extremely confident” they could get a license. “These problems are not deal breakers,” he told the court. “Right now this whole situation is very much in flux.”
He said that without “clarity” on all the issues present, it would not be “fair” for the court to try and pass a resolution calling for a special election. He said that the county’s legal team, the law firm of Friday, Eldredge & Clark, were diligently working with CMS seeking a waiver and that they would know by the time of the court’s July 8 meeting.
If the court cannot approve the resolution by July 8, there won’t be time to get a special election called for in September and they won’t be able to collect monies by the fall. If an election is held in October, November or December, the earliest they can collect taxes will be April 1, 2020. If the election can’t be held until January 2020, the funds won’t begin to be collected until July 1.
“We know the importance of the July 8 meeting,” Cole said.
Cole said that while circumstance may delay a tax vote, he felt certain that citizens would welcome that before the court rushed into something.
A major problem with a location north of De Queen Lake Road is that while water is available, sewer is not and the city of De Queen will have to extend its sewer system to the site, which De Queen Mayor Jeff Brown estimated would cost $1.5 million. Also, the site is not within the city limits.
The cost of building the hospital has been estimated at $18 million, though the county has put out request for qualifications notification with a $16 million price tag. The bonds to build the facility will be paid off in 25-30 years and the current interest rate was estimated to be 3.5 percent, though there is the possibility the federal reserve will lower rates this year. A 1 cent sales tax is estimated to bring in $1.9 million a year.
Cole said that officials need to be ‘exceptionally clear” to voters as to what the facility would look like and what services would be offered.
“We down want anyone to have to have a question,” he said.
Court Justices of the Peace proposed alternatives to the sales tax, offering a liquor tax, though county residents would need to first get an initiative to sell liquor in the county on the ballot, the approved. Cole said that residents would have to “buy an awful lot of liquor” to pay for the hospital.
“You have to have the (sales) tax,” Cole said.
“The sales tax is the fairest,” said Justice Roxy Stephens. “If you want something that is as fair as it can get it for the hospital, that’s the sales tax. Anyone that comes through town and buys a coke, they’re going to pay the tax. Thats the fairest way to go.”
She said that residents she had spokeN with have all been positive that the county needs to have a hospital.
“They tell me, if it takes a sales tax , then so be it,” she said.
Justice David Wright agreed with her but said that voters expected the court to first seek an alternative way to finance it before approving a vote for a tax.
De Queen Fire Chief Dennis Pruitt said that a lot of money is leaking out of the county, going elsewhere as county residents must leave town for healthcare, spending on food and hotels in other communities.
Justice Mike Archer said that business interest rates were rising in town without healthcare and Sheriff Robert Gentry said that sales tax revenue will fall as well with residents being forced to spend out of town.
“Whatever we have to pay, it’s going to hurt some people, but we have to have a hospital,” Wright said.
“I would argue with anyone, it doesn’t matter what the tax is, it’s a must have — not something nice to have — it’s a must have,” Cole said about building a new hospital.