Published: Ocala.com/Star Banner - Sunday, April 8, 2012 6:30 a.m.
After nearly six years of spirited debate, trustees for Munroe Regional Medical Center appear poised to decide Monday evening whether or not to put the question of a hospital tax before the voters of Marion County.
It is time to let the people have their say about their hospital's future.
The seven-member Marion County Hospital District Board of Trustees, which governs the 421-bed public hospital, analyzed their various tax options one more time at a March 26 meeting. The consensus was that a sales tax, a more politically palatable option because everyone would pay it, would not raise enough money to meet Munroe's long-term needs. Hospital administrators estimate $20 million a year is needed for building and equipment improvements if the hospital is going to stay out of the red.
The most effective and unrestricted means of raising that kind of money, trustees were told, would be a bond issue — borrowing money that would be paid back with the proceeds of a 1-mill property tax. After $50,000 in homestead exemptions, a 1-mill tax would cost the owner of a $150,000 house $100 a year, or about $2 week. With that kind of tax revenue, the hospital district could borrow $100 million for 10 years.
Besides infrastructure, building improvements and new equipment, the money could be used to pay off some of Munroe's existing $100 million debt. That, in turn, would free up money from the existing budget to tackle some of Munroe's other financial demands, not the least being long-term capital improvements and charity care.
The trustees and the Marion County Commission, which appoints the trustees and must approve any referendum, should vote to proceed with the hospital tax vote. All along, commissioners have indicated that once trustees have done their due diligence and examined all their options, the people should have the last word. That time has come.
Moreover, four private hospital companies, which have submitted lease or purchase proposals, are waiting in the wings to find out if Munroe can survive as a public hospital, if the public is willing to pay a tax to keep it a viable community-run facility. They need an answer, sooner than later.
For as much disagreement that has surfaced over Munroe's future, there also has been significant agreement. Agreement that Munroe is truly one of the nation's finest community hospitals. Agreement that the medical care delivered is among the best around. Agreement that given the state of the economy and the uncertainties in the health care industry, Munroe is remarkably well-managed. Agreement that Munroe's role as a safety net hospital is a vital asset to Ocala/Marion County where anyone, regardless of their ability to pay, can get quality health care. And agreement that turning Munroe's operation over to a private operator will lead to some reduction in services.
Nonetheless, Munroe's fiscal future is dicey, with red ink expected to begin flowing starting next year.
It is against that backdrop of quality community health care and economic realities that Munroe's trustees and the County Commission should vote to put the question of a hospital tax to the voters. It is time to let the people decide, as County Commissioner Charlie Stone famously put it, whether they want a Cadillac or Chevy for their community hospital.