Behind the backdrop of the ongoing discussions about the future of Weems Memorial Hospital, a tale of two cities is emerging.
The question is – Where in the county will any future facility, either an acute care hospital or a full-service emergency department, be located?
The issue surfaced at the Weems hospital board’s public meeting earlier this month, with the mayors of both Apalachicola and Carrabelle each rose to make their case.
“Throughout Franklin County we have citizens who walk and bike to facilities, to clinics, to grocery stores, in Eastpoint, Lanark and Carrabelle,” said Carrabelle Mayor Brenda La Paz. “We have needy citizens like that throughout the county.
“We need a facility that’s centrally located,” she said. “Our sheriff’s department is centrally located. Put a new facility in Eastpoint where our most needy are.”
Apalachicola Mayor Kevin Begos, later echoed by Apalachicola Commissioner Adriane Elliott, was equally pointed in his remarks.
“What voters approved is not moving something to Eastpoint or somewhere else,” he told the hospital board. “I believe whatever is done needs to stay in Apalachicola.”
A review of the documents surrounding county voters’ approval in 2007 of the one-cent sales tax – critical to any financing of a future facility – shows each side has a point to make.
The ballot language asks the question of whether a one-cent surtax should be imposed “for the sole purpose of improving the quality and delivery of healthcare by constructing a healthcare facility in Carrabelle first, upgrading the ambulance service, and paying the costs of operations of healthcare infrastructure and services, including the construction and paying debt service on bonds to construct a new public hospital facility to replace Weems Memorial Hospital.”
There is no mention of where such a facility would be built. However, that ballot wording does not tell the whole story.
In order for the sales tax to be collected in all parts of the county, not just the unincorporated parts, both cities signed off on inter-local agreements that elaborated on where the monies would go. In both of these agreements, which offer slightly different wording, there is mention the tax revenue would go towards “renovating or rebuilding Weems Memorial Hospital in Apalachicola.”
Does that mean the money will be spent on behalf of “Weems Memorial Hospital in Apalachicola,” or does it mean the money will be spent to renovate or rebuild Weems only “in Apalachicola?”
In the Apalachicola agreement, the wording is further reinforced by a paragraph that reads “In order to preserve and safeguard its critical access designation…Weems Memorial Hospital shall not be located outside the City of Apalachicola.” That paragraph is not found in the Carrabelle agreement.
At the Nov. 19 city commission meeting, Begos introduced a resolution to “honor the intent of the interlocal agreement.” The resolution also includes language the city expects the county to honor both this agreement and the Oct. 2007 county ordinance providing for the use of this discretionary one-cent small county surtax. That ordinance makes no explicit mention the facility would be built in Apalachicola.
“Both the Weems board and the county commission really want our input. They all want the city commission to be more involved,” said Begos. “This really establishes our baseline that we want to keep something in Apalachicola.
“This resolution is a first step,” he said. “I’m glad we’re finally taking up the issue.”
The city commissioners all seemed poise to approve the ordinance next month, after Commissioner Brenda Ash said she wanted a little more time to look it over.
“I think it's very important for our community that our hospital stays, not just an ER, not urgent care,” she said. “It is very important because it is within walking distance. It is important we maintain a healthy accessibility, (which) was originally thought of with the interlocal agreement.
“We have to make sure this includes a hospital,” Ash said. “Most people on the east end, they have that transportation and option to drive to Tallahassee and Port St. Joe.
“We need to be very adamant behind support for Weems Memorial Hospital being constructed in Apalachicola,” she said. “There are some spots in the resolution that gave me a little pause.”