City isn't convinced

Council wants voter input on closing road for new hospital

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— Between a rock and a hard spot.

That's how Craig Mayor Dave DeRose described the position The Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees put the Craig City Council in Tuesday night when the hospital board asked for direction and support on its proposal to build a new hospital.

It's the same position the council was in 18 months ago when hospital officials made a very similar request.

Discussion was just as rigorous Tuesday night as it was 18 months ago when The Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees asked the council to support the decision to build a new hospital -- which the council did -- but debate continues to surround the proposed location of the new facility.

The issues haven't changed, and council members were concerned that the answers haven't either.

During a workshop, hospital officials asked what steps had to be taken to gain approval from the city to close Russell Street to construct a new building next to the existing hospital -- a location hospital officials say a recent survey shows community support for.

"We're left with the conclusion that a majority of people surveyed want us to do a scaled down version of a hospital at the current site with no tax increase," hospital Administrator Randy Phelps said.

Phelps said the survey indicated 62 percent of those questioned felt there was a need to replace the hospital and nearly the same number favored doing it at its current location without a tax increase.

"What I've seen with my own eyes is there doesn't seem to be support for building at this location," Councilor Tom Gilchrist said.

Council members made the same requests Tuesday night they did 18 months ago -- that a traffic study be completed, costs for handling drainage issues be considered and issues surrounding utility relocation be addressed.

They also told hospital officials they were reluctant to make a decision that would determine the future of the hospital without input from the public -- most likely via an election.

To construct an addition to the hospital at its current location, Russell Street would have to be closed, and city officials felt being asked to make that decision was akin to supporting that location or forcing another.

They want community input on making that decison.

"This puts us in a precarious position," Councilor Bill Johnston said. "As you can see, the debate is still strong.

"I'm worried about representing the people in this community we're supposed to represent."

TMH board president Sue Lyster said the results of the survey showed only 14 percent of residents were concerned about closing Russell Street.

The results of the professionally done, $10,000 survey were expected to stand in the place of a citywide election.

"Do the results of the survey increase your comfort with closing Russell Street?" Lyster asked council members.

The answer was no.

Councilor Bill Johnston, like other council members, favors letting residents decide in the November election.

Hospital officials were concerned that a delay would result in increased costs and the chance that a negative vote would mean no new hospital at all.

According to the hospital's figures, the only chance for building without a tax increase is in phasing in improvements and using part of the existing building for administrative services.

Even that may cost more than the Department of Housing and Urban Development is willing to loan based on the hospital's financial projections, Lyster said.

Mayor Dave DeRose said the exact financial issues were something he felt hadn't been established because some costs hadn't been figured -- installation of storm drainage and possible utility line upgrades, for example.

"We've gone to considerable time and money to establish costs," TMH board member Gene Bryant said. "I think these statistics are way more valid than a vote."

The hospital board wants to be ready to break ground in a year, a time frame an election would delay by at least six months.

The bottom line, Lyster said, is money.

Board members agreed they'd love to have a new hospital at a different location, but that would require a tax increase, which survey participants said would not pass. The only possible way to build a new hospital without a tax increase was to make use of portions of the existing facility, Lyster said.

"I would love to see a new hospital built, but I think common sense needs to enter into it," she said.

"We, as a board, don't have a problem with any site if the money's there. We'd love to do it off site, that would be ideal, but the money just isn't there."

The board projects that building at an alternative site would cost nearly $5 million more than adding on to the existing site.

Council members, disappointed with the lack of change in information from a meeting held in November 2002, will likely require an election before approving the closure of Russell Street.

"To me, we're at the same place we were a year ago, discussing the same things," Councilor Don Jones said.

"I really feel we should go to a vote of the people and if that puts (hospital oconstruction) six months behind, so be it."

The rest of the council agreed.

"The people we represent are the citizens of Craig and I don't think we can make the decision as a council," Councilor Kent Nielson said.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210

or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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