County says no to Belhaven loan

Published 5:56 pm Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A second attempt by the Town of Belhaven to secure a loan from the county failed.

In the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners’ regular meeting Monday, the board voted 6-1 against the second request to loan the town $643,000 for the town’s effort to reopen the hospital closed by Vidant Health on July 1, 2014.

The board also voted, 6-1, not to bring the issue up again for six months.

Commissioner Hood Richardson, who is vice chairman of the Pungo Medical Center board, the nonprofit corporation created to reopen and operate the hospital, made the motion and was the lone dissenting vote.

Last year, Vidant representatives said the small, rural hospital was not sustainable, offering instead to build a 24/7 clinic from which emergency patients would be funneled via air or land to Vidant Health in Greenville. But since hospital’s doors closed, Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal, the town council and other stakeholders have embarked on a campaign to reopen the hospital.

At May’s Board of Commissioners meeting, O’Neal went before the board to request the loan, which he says will allow the town to pay fair market value for the hospital property. While the property has been appraised at a value of over $5 million, the Town of Belhaven owns a 100-foot swath through the middle of the hospital — an extension of Allan Street. Without the 100-foot piece, the property’s value drops to $643,000, according to Richardson. A loan from the county would have been used to secure the land, which would then be used to secure a $6 million USDA loan — a pivotal piece in opening the hospital again.

The board declined to vote on the issue in front a large crowd of Belhaven hospital supporters last month. The vote on Monday night was in the negative, though Richardson said the loan “won’t cost the county one dime:” the county could take out a second mortgage on the hospital, and the county has the ability to raise Belhaven taxes to ensure repayment.

Commissioner Ron Buzzeo told the board he wasn’t comfortable voting in favor of the loan because his request for more information about the parties involved in the process had yet to receive a response. Buzzeo said before last month’s meeting, he asked O’Neal for due diligence reports, financial records and references for New Frontier Hospitals, the entity contracted to management the hospital once reopened.

“I asked for them a month ago, and have not received them,” Buzzeo said. “I think we’re being asked to make a decision based on a lack of information.”

Commissioner Frankie Waters said the issue for him is money.

“(The viability) is based on the fact that the 24/7 clinic is never going to open, but it’s under construction right now,” Waters said. “I’ve never seen a business be a success when the balance sheet is full of debt. And this balance sheet is full of debt. … If this county wants to spend money, I think we need to spend it on the paramedics, not on a hospital that has struggled and struggled and struggled for years.”

After the subsequent vote to not bring the issue before the board for six months, Richardson told fellow commissioners, “This is a heartless board; this is a cruel board; this is a sinful board, from the standpoint of looking out for the citizens of Beaufort County.”

The vote comes as O’Neal, civil rights advocate Bob Zellner and a group of rural health care advocates from 14 states are walking 273 miles to Washington, D.C., to rally on the Capitol steps and lobby legislators to address the nationwide issue of dwindling health care in rural communities.