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Hospital's foundation goes to court over fees // LEASE IS THE ISSUE

Published Jul. 6, 2006

If voters decide in a Nov. 14 referendum that Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital should be sold, the hospital might not fight the sale _ provided the foundation that now operates the facility could stay until its lease expires.

At a hospital-sponsored forum Thursday, Lester Garner, chairman of the Tarpon Springs Hospital Foundation Inc., said that if voters reject the sale, city commissioners ought to regard that decision as a mandate, even though the referendum is non-binding.

But Garner acknowledged Friday that a vote in favor of a sale also would be a mandate _ one directed at the hospital.

"We're not going to fight the sale of the hospital, but we might fight to honor the lease," Garner said. "If they honored the lease we wouldn't fight the sale."

The foundation operates the hospital under a state-issued license. But it leases the land and the hospital buildings from the city. The foundation's lease doesn't expire until 2021.

The hospital's response to the Nov. 14 vote would depend on how the city approached any potential sale, said Joe Kiefer, hospital administrator. Do city commissioners want just the building sold? Or the hospital's license, too?

"I think it's possible to sell the tangible property, keep the license and have the foundation in place," he said.

Thursday night more than 100 people, many of them hospital employees, wore aqua-and-peach buttons, T-shirts and ribbons as they nodded and listened to official after official explain why the hospital should not be sold.

It was the first of the hospital's public forums to persuade voters to vote "no" on the sale.

City officials want to sell the hospital. The city also is conducting forums, the next one at 10 a.m. today in the City Hall auditorium.

Several foundation members presented dollar figures to challenge what they called misinformation distributed by the city.

"I want to destroy the myth that we only pay $15,000 a year in rent," said Ron Spenlau, vice president of the foundation. "We pay $3.1-million in basic rent."

While the lease calls that payment "basic rent," the money goes into an interest account to pay off bonds, and the city has no access to it until the bonds are paid off in 27 years.

Spenlau added that the city government gets an additional $135,000 a year in taxes and health services from the hospital.

City officials have said the sale of the hospital could generate $20-million for the city, said Robert Alderman, a Tarpon Springs accountant who attended the meeting. But he said the city neglected to figure in bond benefits, employees' pensions and Medicare and closing costs.

"So what we're really talking about, instead of $20-million, is actually as much as $9-million or as little as $3.9-million," he said.

Alderman also questioned the rationale behind city officials' charge that only 25 percent of Helen Ellis' patients live in Tarpon Springs.

That means, he said, that 75 percent of the hospital's bonds are being paid off by outsiders.

"If I have a house way up there in the mountains, and others pay 75 percent for it, but I get to use it whenever I want to, that's a pretty good deal to me," he said.

The audience asked few questions during the forum. Most were about last year's proposed partnership with Columbia/HCA. Garner assured them the partnership talks have ended.

Mayor Anita Protos and commissioners Helene Pierce, Dudley Salley and Karen Brayboy, who all favor selling the hospital, listened politely in a corner. Commissioner Cindy Domino, who opposes a sale, sat across the room.

Afterward, Protos charged that the hospital's presentation was based "on emotion, not fact."