Demopolis city council votes to fund labor and delivery for 60 additional days

Published 9:30 pm Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Demopolis City Council and Marengo County Commission met together Thursday to discuss funding Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital’s labor and delivery unit an additional 60 days.

However, just one governing body voted to put up the $68,000 needed to prevent the unit from closing.

After a two-and-a-half hour joint meeting, the Demopolis council voted to provide the additional funding and ask for a second seat on the task force that will try to come with up a long-term solution to save labor and delivery.

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The move came after the commission voted down two separate motions to split the the cost evenly between the city and county.

“They apparently don’t want to be a part of this discussion,” Demopolis Mayor Mike Grayson said. “We are going at it alone.”

At the beginning of the meeting, Grayson addressed the commission about the importance of the hospital, especially labor and delivery.

“I think we all recognize the significance of the hospital in the county and what it does for us,” he said. “I know the county budget is tight, as is the city budget, as is everything.”

Grayson floated the idea that the city would advance Whitfield $68,000 of $125,000 it has already promised the hospital for 2014 in exchange for the county passing a resolution allowing a referendum on an ad valorem tax increase of at least three mils to fund labor and delivery.

“Should labor and delivery close, it would go away,” Grayson said.

Any increase in property taxes would have to have the support of the local delegation in the Alabama Legislature and be passed by Marengo County voters.

A 3 mil increase would bring in $623,000 in revenue. It would increase property taxes on a $200,000 home by about $60 a year, Grayson estimated.

The money raised would stay in a special account just to be used by labor and delivery. If any year had a surplus, then that money would be put into escrow for leaner times.

Under Grayson’s idea, all checks from the labor and delivery account would have to clear Demopolis City Hall as well as hospital administration.

The proposal would allow Marengo County voters to decide on the future of labor and delivery, Grayson said.

“We are doing something,” he said. “If the people say, ‘Yes’ — problem solved. If they say, ‘No,’ — problem solved.”

Hospital administrator Mike Marshall, who was in attendance Thursday, said he didn’t think the hospital board would accept just an advance on money already promised them.

“I can just about tell you that’s a deal breaker,” Marshall said.

After those comments, the city and county discussed for some time splitting the difference, with each entity providing $34,000.

Commissioner Freddie Armstead made a motion to give $34,000, assuming the county and city would be reimbursed if any future property tax increases are approved.

“We are all in this together,” Armstead said. “Economically, it would kill some of the things we are trying to do [to lose labor and delivery].

Calvin Martin voted in favor of the motion, but John Crawford, Dan England, Michael Thompson voted against it.

Thompson and Crawford both said they could not support giving any money since the county gave the hospital $100,000 for labor and delivery in 2011.

“I said I would never do it again,” Thompson said.

Marengo County pays more than $300,000 in indigent care each year, but The Demopolis Times couldn’t confirm Thursday how much of that money is given to BWWMH.

After Armstead’s motion failed, England proposed a similar one — that the county give $34,000 and then recoup their money if a countywide sales tax increase is approved in the future.

England said he wasn’t supporting a sales tax but rather thought it would be fairer than an increase in property taxes because people coming into Demopolis from neighboring counties would be helping fund labor and delivery.

“I think the other counties should pay their part,” England said.

More than 40 percent of the babies born at Whitfield are from outside Marengo County, according to Marshall.

Armstead supported England’s motion as well but Crawford, Martin and Thompson voted against it.

After the two failed motions, the commission adjourned and the Demopolis City Council took their meeting to an outside hallway.

Grayson said he was disappointed, and the only way the city can raise money is through increasing sales taxes — a route he was hesitant to take.

“The only thing we can do is pass a sales tax and that kills the Golden Goose,” Grayson said. “The commission by not taking action, took action.”

Councilman Harris Nelson made a motion to provide $68,000 to the hospital board to keep labor and delivery open, which was passed unanimously. Those funds are in addition to the $125,000 the city already provides BWWMH.

The cash infusion remains a short reprieve. The newly formed labor and delivery task force is still charged with finding a permanent solution.

Without a sustained and substantial influx of cash, Marshall said the hospital can’t keep the unit open.

“I think we are going to have to close it (without additional revenue),” Marshall said. “It will never be self-sufficient.”