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Hospital waits to negotiate its move

Six weeks after making his pitch to move Brooksville Regional Hospital, CEO Tom Barb still is trying to get into County Administrator Paul McIntosh's office to hash out the details.

McIntosh, assigned by county commissioners to spearhead the review of Barb's proposal, has corresponded with the hospital chief but has shown no indication that he would rush his investigation or his recommendation.

"I am in the process of obtaining specialized financial expertise to assist Hernando County in the analysis of your proposal and working with our counsel regarding any legal issues related to the proposed agreement amendment," McIntosh wrote to Barb earlier this month.

"I am also taking a family vacation, sandwiched between attendance at the Florida Association of Counties and National Association of Counties annual conferences," he wrote. "I will return to the office on July 18 and anticipate that we can set up a face-to-face meeting soon thereafter."

That meeting has not yet been scheduled.

Barb professed a lack of concern about the delay, and said he has used the time to prime the pump of public opinion. Hernando HealthCare, the local branch of Naples-based Health Management Associates, has run several ads touting the value of rebuilding the hospital in a new location.

Barb and his top staffers also have hit the civic group circuit, speaking to any organization that wants to hear more details about the proposal. The team this week has given its talk to the NAACP Hernando County branch and the Brooksville Rotary Club, and found relatively positive response.

"I think a lot of people have misperceptions," said Judy Whitehead, a real estate appraiser who attended the Rotary Club session. "It helped to hear this information."

Such responses encouraged Barb, who acknowledged that the issue of relocating a hospital does not set the world afire and any positive reaction is better than none at all. His spirits also got a boost from some signals within McIntosh's recent letter.

In that letter, McIntosh seemed to suggest that the deal is viable if certain conditions are met. For instance, he wrote that he has asked utilities Director Kay Adams to prepare estimates for extending water and sewer lines to the planned new hospital site "to assist in your infrastructure planning."

McIntosh also wrote that he was certain that the contract amendment details "can be resolved to our mutual satisfaction."

Barb held out hope that the sides could reach a quick agreement so the hospital can seek state approval for the move in the next application cycle, which begins in August. He suggested that the county might consider creating a negotiation committee to get the ball rolling.

Still, he acknowledged that the hospital deliberately has not screamed for fast action.

"I certainly get the impression the county did not want to be pushed," Barb said.

Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley made that position clear.

"I don't think there's any particular time line on this," said Kingsley, who had not been briefed on the issue since the initial proposal. "You don't want to be rash in making a decision like this."

Commissioner Diane Rowden said she had thought the idea had fizzled and died, she had heard so little since early June.

"It's kind of strange for the people who are going to make the final decision to be left out of the loop," Rowden said.

Barb said he expected the item would go back to the commission soon after he meets with McIntosh.

_ Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government, and can be reached at 754-6115. Discuss this and other issues in our Web-based forum at www.sptimes.com/hernandoforum.

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