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Great debate on Munroe continues

Ocala, FL - Saturday, October 15, 2011

Published in the Ocala Star-Banner on Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 9:18 p.m.

As the debate rages among Munroe Regional Medical Center board members and trustees over the future of the hospital, there is a growing sense that one powerful group that is not even present for the discussions is determined to have the final say.

The debate, of course, is about how to ensure the long-term financial health of Munroe, which is expected to start bleeding red ink sometime in the next few years.

It seems an article of faith now that the only solutions are to levy a tax to support the hospital, find a health care partner who can share some of the expense, or lease the public hospital to a private company.

And while the hospital board members and trustees argue about the possibilities among themselves, diehard Munroe supporters seem convinced that the Marion County Commission is working all of the angles to steer the outcome it wants.

They point, foremost, to the fact that the county commissioners themselves have said they will not support a property tax for the hospital. They also note that County Commission Chairman Stan McClain got involved in the discussion over whether the trustees should continue to use the services of the not-for-profit Munroe Regional Health Systems to manage the hospital.

Munroe diehards also have suspicions that the commission, which has the power to appoint trustees to the hospital board, is trying to stack the deck with trustees who are as anti-tax-minded as they are.

And there's this: It recently came to light that one of the county commissioners asked the county attorney to research legal justifications for removing a trustee from the hospital board.

So it would seem that, yes, the County Commission has been very active in the Munroe debate in its own way.

For their part, county commissioners flatly reject the notion that they are trying to engineer the outcome from afar.

Chairman McClain and other commissioners say they are frustrated that, despite dire warnings of Munroe's worsening financial picture, the trustees have dragged their feet in finding a solution — tax or otherwise.

Commissioners are upset that a majority of trustees seem to be leaning toward a tax even though they haven't done a thorough analysis of all the other possibilities.

McClain told me in exasperation, "It's not our decision to make. They (trustees) need to bring us something to vote on."

But there's a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black going on here.

It's a little silly for the commissioners to accuse the trustees of being close-minded about non-tax solutions to Munroe's problems when they themselves are close-minded to the idea of property tax support before they've heard any arguments pro or con.

Commissioners also reject the accusation that they will seek to stack the board with anti-tax appointments next time they get to choose new trustees in the summer.

Maybe. Maybe not.

McClain said "of course" he would look for trustees who think like him, although he also insists they would also have to be open minded.

"Absolutely not!" Commissioner Mike Amsden growled when asked whether he might look for anti-tax trustees.

In fact, Amsden said he has his eye on a trustee candidate who seems genuinely open to all possibilities, although he would not publicly divulge the person's name.

What's clear is that influential people on both sides of the debate are trying to engineer an outcome even before the hospital's consultant completes a study of tax and non-tax options for shoring up Munroe's long-term financial health.

Here's an idea: Everyone quit politicking and, instead, wait for the consultant's report.

Then, debate the options and choose a solution based on data and reason.


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