Hope board takes emergency action to keep hospital, places Hope For Future projects on November ballot
Action was taken by the City of Hope Board of Directors Tuesday night in an attempt to keep Wadley Regional Medical Center going as its parent company, Steward Health, is in bankruptcy proceedings.   It also placed a proposal to upgrade park facilities, build an aquatic/recreational center and new fire station with proceeds from a one-cent sales tax on the November ballot.

The meeting can be seen in its entirety on the city's facebook site.

In response to the news that Hope’s only hospital is on a list of hospitals the Massachusetts-based Steward is looking to divest itself from, the board unanimously passed a resolution providing $1 million of the city’s funds over the next ten months starting July 1st in $100,000 monthly increments to keep the staff of the hospital paid in the event of a transition period between the time Steward gives up its management of Wadley and another buyer of the hospital takes control. 

Hope-Hempstead County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Anna Powell spoke to the board and to a packed room containing members of the Southwest Arkansas Healthcare Authority (SWAHA), a non-profit corporation set up in May with the mission “to continue to provide quality healthcare services in Southwest Arkansas along with working toward a long-term solution for healthcare in our local region,” according to a statement the group released and also the 2024 Leadership Hempstead County class. 

Powell said at the meeting, “What we are asking of our community is that we get our skin back in the game. We've trusted corporate partners, corporate health care partners. … But what we haven't done is really oversee … operations, and really question some of the things that we've disagreed with … This is a step in the direction of getting all of our community back in, back in the game.” 

She said the request for the city’s financial support is the result of five to six months of meetings and research conducted by the members of SWAHA in consultation with the law firm it has hired Mitchell Williams. The members of SWAHA include Powell, Pafford Chief Operating Officer Clay Hobbs, County Justice of the Peace Ed Darling, District Prosecutor Ben Hale, Hope City Manager JR Wilson and former Hope Mayor Dennis Ramsey. 

Wilson asked Powell what the consequences would be if Wadley Regional were to shut down. “I think over in on the short term, it may be something that we may not notice in a year,” Powell said. “But in the long term, in five years, 10 years, you would quickly see industries starting to look to relocate based on their insurances, specifically chemical companies. We could even have some issues with the railroads, which is the lifeline.  Some of you know that when an injury happens on those sites, their insurances have to cover some of those things, and so they would see an immediate increase in their costs, and they would be substantial, and they base their profitability on a lot of those costs. And then . . . from a recruitment standpoint, it would be very challenging.” 

Wilson then asked about a matter pertaining to Wadley Regional’s current licensing. “If the hospital license stopped, would we ever be able to have a hospital ever again?” 

“No,” Powell said. “And that’s just a simple way to say it.” She explained that SWAHA’s research included looking into how other communities had fared in similar situations and choosing an option most likely to lead to retaining local hospitals. “I'm no healthcare expert, and so I have to consult and ask questions. But I'm learning a lot, and what I'm learning is [the rural healthcare industry] is very fluid, and from the licensing standpoint, if our hospital closes, the [chances of the] reopening of that is 0 percent.” 

Wilson said that if the board decided not to contribute city funding, the result could be a major increase in costs for the city’s ambulance service providers. Without a local hospital, they would be required to take patients to farther-flung hospitals and expand their fleet of vehicles. The funds required to staff one ambulance is about half a million dollars yearly, Wilson said. “So I don’t think there’s any way to get out of some kind of cost here.” 

Wilson then described the resolution he was recommending, saying Hempstead County Quorum Court will have a chance to pass a similar one in an emergency meeting to take place Thursday at the courthouse starting at 4:30 p.m.  “What we're proposing is that the county would commit to $1 million over the next 10 months, and we would commit to a million dollars over the next 10 months,” he said. “Ours would be paid out $100,000 a month for the next 10 months to hit the million-dollar mark. And this is only contingent upon, if the bankruptcy court allows the operations to be sold to a vendor that would operate in our hospital, and they would need operation monies until they could get their feet on the ground.” He added that the resolution had been approved by the city’s attorney Randal Wright. 

Powell said SWAHA will be requesting money from Arkansas’ American Rescue Plan Act funds and emergency funds. If these come in, Powell said, there may not be the need for Hope and Hempstead County funds, but the process of requesting and receiving state funds “can't move as quickly as it needs to for the bankruptcy court timeline.” 

Mayor Don Still asked if there was a chance that after ownership of Wadley Regional is transferred that the city could have the funds it contributes returned. “At this time, what we're asking from you all is for these funds to be available, if needed, up to this amount, nothing more than that. And then our goal and intent, and we truly believe this will happen is that we'll be able to replenish those funds,” Powell said. 

In response to a question from Director Trevor Coffee about whether it would be better to allow the hospital an instant line of credit for $1 million, Powell said, “This 10-month period may be too long, may be too short.  This is based on the very best estimates we can have, looking at the financials that we have access to at this time and that is the number that we came up with as a group. As for the line of credit, we want to be able to have some check ins. We think it's best for all entities involved to have some monthly check-ins, and some financial reports given on what services were provided.” 

Wilson asked Powell how many jobs could be lost should Wadley Regional close. She said she did not have that number but knew that the job losses would go beyond the hospital staff and encompass jobs at major industries that depend on its presence. He asked Jamie Pafford-Gresham, CEO of Pafford EMS, who was in attendance, what her concerns were. 

She explained that recently in Prescott, which only has two ambulance units, three patients needed to be transported at the same time. Fortunately, a third unit was dispatched from Hope to pick up the patient. “What will happen in the future, if the hospital is not there, then we're 45 minutes, 50 minutes away with our ambulances in another community, at another hospital, most likely waiting to unload our patient, and not a priority for them to do that. So we see it as a definite burden, not only on this county, but the surrounding counties as well, because they all hub into here,” Pafford-Gresham said, adding that the situation makes her nervous and would indeed require more ambulances. 

To Director Coffee’s question of when the bankruptcy court would be making a decision, Powell said the end of June. He then asked who would have control of the funds contributed by Hope and Hempstead County. “Hempstead County Economic Development. And then some monies, as needed, would flow through Southwest Arkansas Healthcare Authority, depending on what types of funds it is, if we're talking about the state funds, the ARPA funds.” 

Coffee followed up, asking who at the hospital would be in charge of how funds are used. “Currently, it is operated by Steward Healthcare,” Powell said. “Once the bankruptcy court has come to a decision on who the bidder it is that they so choose [to allow to buy the hospital], then negotiations will begin on a lease which is with a third-party company who is not in bankruptcy. So there's multiple layers of steps. But who bridges the gap, that's what these funds are for.” 

Pafford-Gresham spoke on what should be the community’s priorities in the current situation. “The goal for the county and the city should be to get back control of that hospital, whether it starts with the property, or it starts with a license, but unfortunately, we're dealing with two different entities and we're having to work in between the two to make that happen. But the best thing that could happen for our community is to be able to take back control of that property and of that license, even if we allow someone else to operate under that license on our behalf, as long as we are overseeing that process. That's what we want to see happen to ensure tat we have a facility open here for our community.” 

Former Hope Mayor Dennis Ramsey clarified that the two entities Pafford-Gresham was referring to are the owner of the real estate the hospital is on and the owner of the license. Pafford-Gresham confirmed this and said, “If we so happen to be a successful bidder for the license, and we don't have the real estate, then we can't operate the hospital.” She praised the work of Powell and Hobbs on SWAHA for “trying to to rattle all of the cages to make sure that we could make the best decision that we could for our community. And right now this is it because we don't see any other answers, and we are very scared of what the outcome may be if we're not actively pursuing an opportunity for our community?” 

Vice-mayor Kiffinea Tally asked what the financial effect of spending $1 million on the hospital will be on the city’s balance sheet.  Wilson said the city could provide the funds and still maintain its services and continue its projects. 

Mayor Still said that there was still a good chance the city would receive its money back. “Once the property is acquired and all updates are done as needed to have a fully functioning facility at that time, we will work to understand the financials of the operations a little better. At that time, we will formalize a lease agreement in a repayment plan to the to the city through the Southwest Arkansas Healthcare Authority based on the lease rate.” 

Asked what her preference was for the outcome of the present situation, Powell said “the plan is for the property to either be owned by the Southwest Arkansas Healthcare Authority or be owned by the city and the county eventually, and then it'd be contracted to the Southwest Arkansas Healthcare Authority to manage.” She added that the license to operate would be held by the company that ultimately bids for and wins ownership of it during bankruptcy proceedings. 

Powell said the city and county could not hold the license, holding the real estate would give both leverage over a potentially abusive license-holder. “We would have our paws on the real estate, which gives us authority to say ‘You can't operate here, because you're a bad actor.’” 

Wilson suggested, given that Steward’s troubles had come from selling its facilities’ real estate and then having to pay increasingly high rents, the goal was also for the city and county to own the real estate so that they would not charge a lease that would be prohibitive of the hospital operator’s ability to make a profit. 

At this time, Wright read the resolution entitled A Resolution of the Board of Directors of City of Hope Designating Up to 1 million US dollars Currency to the Hempstead County Economic Development Corporation for Purposes of Economic Development, to Retain and Fund Local Hospital Services in Hope, Arkansas and Other Purposes.  The motion to pass it came from  Director Mark Ross, seconded by Director Coffee.  The vote to pass it was unanimous. 

“That’s step one,” Mayor Still said afterward. “Here we go. Good luck. We’re going to need it.” 

He urged the attendees to stay to see the vote on the Hope for the Future Project, which is the ongoing process to provide Hope with a new Hope Fire Department headquarters, a recreation/aquatic center and many upgrades to its park facilities. 

Wilson presented the proposal to place on the November ballot a one-cent sales tax to be collected for up to the next 17 years but stopping when the estimated amount needed for the facilities and upgrades are covered.  He gave the board the option to approve the collection of $26,765,795.52 for the fire department building, the recreational/aquatic center and the upgrades without an outdoor pool, or $28,812,084.52 with the outdoor pool.  Wilson said that with upcoming economic booms that could come from the nearby development of lithium mines, the regionalization of the Tyson Feed mill and more farms being established, Hope needed outdoor facilities that competed with those of towns nearby to sustain its economic strength by keeping dollars spent in town and drawing spending from visitors. 

As Wilson spoke and as the board discussed the proposal, images were projected of potential locations for the aquatic center, one of which would be on the east side of the Spring Hill Road and 16th Street intersection. Wilson said the estimates for costs were purposely high to make sure the projects’ costs would be covered. He also said that since historically Hope’s sales tax collections have increased each year, he could anticipate the costs being covered sooner than the projected 17 years. 

The motion that carried unanimously, made by Director Coffee and seconded by Director Ross, included the outdoor pool. As a result, voters will have the option to approve the Hope For the Future projects. Mayor Still said that because of the financial arrangements made with bond issuers, Hope residents will see facilities and upgrades begin to take shape starting as soon as three years from now. 

In other business, Hope-Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Christy Burns introduced the members of the Hempstead County Leadership Class of 2024 who were attending as part of the course’s curriculum. She said applications to next year’s class will be taken starting in September. 

Carl Conley, Hope’s Building Official presented photos of about half a dozen properties not meeting minimal standards either because of a deteriorated building, mobile home or debris.  The photos projected onto the screen were of properties whose owners are being sent final notices prior to the city’s taking its own cleanup measures, which may include demolition. 

New Millenium made a request to lay some rail on city property beside an existing track, which was approved by unanimous motion. 

A resolution was passed to authorize the spending of remaining ARPA funds. Wilson said, “$707,845.06 of that would that would fund our general fund, salary expenses, and then $170,765.11 would be used to reimburse the existing payment we've already made to the UV disinfection system in the wastewater department.” He added that about $35,000 in interest would be applied to costs for repairing drainage lines. 

Drainage repairs, Wilson said, were needed at the 1500 block of Grady because of collapsing plastic pipe. It will be replaced by concrete pipe at a cost of $28-30,000. Since the amount is within the city manager’s spending authority, the expenditure did not have to be approved by the city board.  Mayor Still asked if there were any more such pipes in the ground. Wilson said he was sure there is, but would be working to replace them with concrete. 

During City Manager’s Report, Wilson asked for board approval of a resolution to change an order in the Sixth Street Project so that the city is providing street overlay and striping. This measure, Wilson said, would save costs and move the project closer to completion. At Director Ross’ motion and Vice-mayor Tally’s second, the resolution passed. 

Wilson also introduced the city’s incoming assistant city director, Daniel Shelman, a native of Magnet Cove most experienced in parks management. “All this talk about new rec center is exciting to me,” he told the board and attendees. “I come from a background in parks and recreation, so been with the parks for 15 years, and gathered a lot of experience there. And so I'm excited to be here.” He will take up his duties July 8th. 

Coffee asked about the progress on the Sixth Street Project punchlist, a list of items to be addressed by the contractor before the project is considered complete. Wilson said the work at that location is placing a priority on tasks necessary so the city can begin its overlay, milling and striping work. This will involve redoing a curb, removing a tree and replacing some grass.  

Coffee asked whether the contractor had already been fully paid for this work. Wilson said in talking with an Arkansas Department of Transportation official about the project he learned that about $600,000 was “still on the table.” 

Asked about the hole at 16th and Elm, Wilson said he was having the Street Department keep it filled, but in the longer term it would be repaired. With 16th Street being an important road, Wilson is also planning to have it striped. The city is doing the filling of holes associated with the Sixth Street Project as well.  Mayor Still said Street Department Superintendent Kenneth Harvel told him he was ready with the milling materials as soon as the contractors finished their part of the work. 

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Anna Powell, Hope-Hempstead County's Economic Development Corporation Executive Director.
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Jamie Pafford Gresham, CEO of Pafford Emergency Medical Services.
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Randal Wright, Hope's City Attorney.

Carl Conley, Hope's Building Official.