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Editorial: The people to decide on Munroe

Ocala, FL - April 11, 2012

Well, after years of discussion and debate, the future of Munroe Regional Medical Center is now in the hands of the voters, and their decision on whether or not to approve a hospital tax will not be an easy one.

Trustees for the Marion County Hospital District, who oversee Munroe’s operation, voted 5-2 Monday night to put a 1-mill property tax on the November ballot. Like the extended conversation about what to do about Munroe’s long-term fiscal health, the trustees’ vote was not easy — it took two separate votes to finally reach the conclusion they did.

The 1-mill tax would be levied against Marion County property taxpayers for 10 years and would be used to pay $130 million in bonds, which would be spent on structural and equipment improvements at the aging Munroe facility as well as paying off part of the public hospital’s $100 million debt.

What makes the voters’ decision so difficult is that they have two choices, neither of which is palatable to a community that is proud of its taxpayer-owned hospital, considered one of the best in the nation.

The referendum will come at a time when voters undoubtedly will be bombarded with less-government, less-taxes messages. It will make selling the Munroe tax more difficult.

At the same time, failure to approve the tax will likely mean succumbing to financial realities and leasing the hospital to a private corporation, ceding much of the community’s control over the hospital that has served this community increasingly well over the past century.

What will complicate the voters’ decision even more is that Munroe is among the best hospitals in the nation. If our community hospital were mediocre or worse, it would be an easy call. But it is not mediocre, it is a valuable community asset that takes care of all Marion Countians, regardless of their station in life.

It was suggested by trustee Larry Strack Monday night that the voters will have difficulty understanding the referendum and the issues surrounding it. Maybe.

But more likely they will understand that what is at stake is whether Munroe continues to strive to be a top-tier facility operated by the community or whether it becomes something less, although not necessarily bad, with the decisions about its services and its care made by corporate executives elsewhere.

We have consistently argued in this column that Ocala/Marion County should do all it can to maintain Munroe as a quality community hospital, and we believe the best way to do that is keep it in local hands. That said, it is now in the voters’ hands as to what will happen with our remarkable hospital and it will fall to them to learn the issues, the potential consequences of voting for or against the tax and what it will all mean 10, 20 or 30 years down the road.

Goodness knows the trustees did not rush into this decision. To the contrary. They did the right thing, however, in putting the decision about whether or not Munroe is to remain the people’s hospital in the hands of the people themselves.