Belhaven votes to pay lawyer fees as O’Neal builds support in Raleigh

Published 7:20 pm Wednesday, September 16, 2015

BELHAVEN — At a Monday night meeting, the Belhaven Board of Aldermen voted 3-2 to go ahead with payment to the law office representing the town in the Save the Hospital lawsuit. Aldermen Vic Cox and Samuel Williams were the dissenting votes.

According to Steve Noble, the former interim town manager for Belhaven, the law firm Blue Stephens & Fellers based out of Raleigh is pushing for payment of $8,525 for the cost of services as soon as possible.

The board agreed to pay the fee, which falls under hospital expenses and was not included in the budget passed for this fiscal year, although hospital expenses were allowed through a budget amendment.

Board member Julian Goff said the town agreed to pay the amount because it was the smaller of two fees to be paid. This fee is in relation to Belhaven’s lawsuit against Vidant Health and Pantego Creek LLC, which alleges the medical company breached its contract with the town when it closed the hospital in July 2014. The larger fee has more to do with Belhaven obtaining the certificate of need, he said.

The lawsuit is expected to go to court in October.

To gain state legislative support to reopen the Belhaven hospital, and amend or abolish the laws for a certificate of need that the town must obtain to get possession of the property under eminent domain, Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal went on a 130-mile walk to Raleigh.

He arrived in Raleigh late Tuesday night and planned to meet with the governor and legislators on Wednesday, Goff said.

According to a report from the Associated Press, O’Neal got the support as of Wednesday afternoon when the state Senate Rules Committee voted in favor of legislation to exempt Belhaven from the certificate of need requirement, thus labeling the property as an “existing hospital.”

Goff said he thinks the board made the right decision for the future of the town by agreeing to pay the money.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking to see a hospital that’s been operating from about 1948 to 2012 … and just totally gone in two years and nothing left,” he said. “If you’re accountable to the community and the largest economic organization in the community closes and the major healthcare facility closes, do you sit by and do nothing?”

Vic Cox, who voted against paying the lawyer fees, said he voted based on what he has heard from many of the townspeople.

“I really feel like the money being spent on this hasn’t really been allocated for this. … We really can’t afford what we’re paying for this,” he said. “The majority of the citizens I’ve talked to feel that way.”

Cox said the town is struggling, and he doesn’t think money should be spent on lawyer fees.

“I’m just trying to have a positive outlook for the citizens of the town,” he said.

Vidant Health is adamant that there was no breach of contract and is in the process of building a 24-hour clinic in Belhaven to accommodate healthcare needs. The 12,000-square-foot clinic will not include emergency services, but it will have access for helicopter transport to Vidant Medical Center.

According to Vidant officials, the hospital was closed because it was operating at a deficit and losing more than $2 million each year.

At Monday’s meeting, Belhaven resident Ellen Allen used the three-minute time span for public comments to ask the council why they were being asked for more money when O’Neal had previously stated in a Letter to the Editor “we have the money to open our hospital.” Allen has been a strong supporter of Vidant and Pantego Creek LLC.

“In my view, in doing nothing … it’s not very responsible representation, I don’t think,” Goff said. “Things worthwhile usually take energy, effort and resources to get it.”

“It’s a matter of deciding if you think it’s in the best interest of the community.”