Parish storm recovery funds shifted to hospital

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter

The Iberville Parish Council on Tuesday agreed to shift $21.6 million of the parish's disaster recovery money to the construction of a small new hospital in the Plaquemine area.

The council also authorized Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. to request proposals from hospital consultants to help plan the hospital, provide financial analyses and see it through to its opening.

The Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA), overseeing hurricane recovery spending, has final authority on the parish's application for the hospital. If the LRA approves, site selection, design work and construction will take at least three years.

In shifting the disaster funding request, the Parish Council scrapped most of its list of proposed projects to give the hospital top priority.

The council retained proposals for a $1 million a disaster relief complex in North Iberville, $2.1 million for canal restoration and $400,000 to repair storm damages to the American Legion hall will remain on the list, but scratched $12 million for water main replacements for Water District No. 3, $2 million for a regional sewage treatment plant in the Plaquemine area, $1.8 million for housing and $700,000 for a land use plan from the list, along with $4.25 million proposed for the repair of the former River West facility.

Overall, Iberville Parish is slated to get $44.6 million in federal hurricane recovery money, with $24.27 of the amount earmarked for the Parish Council and the rest going to parish municipalities. The municipalities' lists of priorities will not be affected.

The Parish Council took the action after a public hearing Tuesday night.

Dr. James Grace, who has practiced medicine here for 35 years and currently works with the Iberville Parish Coroner's Office, said the parish needs a hospital not only for its more than 30,000 residents, but also for the hundreds of plant and construction workers who come here daily and for residents in cities and towns south of Plaquemine who once depended on River West.

Former Parish Council member, Thomas E. Dominique of Bayou Goula, objected to the parish's getting into the hospital business.

“I definitely agree the parish needs a hospital, but I don't think the parish should get into the hospital business,” Dominique said.

The Parish Council held two previous meetings on the hospital proposal, a special meeting last week and a committee meeting Monday night, and quickly passed the Ourso administration proposals without objection.

At the earlier meetings, Tom David of Pan American Engineers, the parish's consultant on the hurricane recovery money, and Sandra Gunter of the LRA said recovery funds have been used to build a new hospital in Cameron Parish and currently are being used for a similar project in St. Bernard.

“I know it's an eligible activity,” the consultant said.

Any proposed changes would affect affect only the parish's portion of the disaster funding, David emphasized.

“This is not affecting any of the commitments we made to the small towns and cities,” David said.

Parish President Ourso said the parish had included $2 million to help the City of Plaquemine build a new regional sewage treatment plant, and that would be among the projects pulled to help fund the hospital. He said he had not discussed the issue with Plaquemine Mayor Mark A. 'Tony” Gulotta.

A large percentage of sewage the city treats is from areas of the parish outside the city limits.

Ourso told the council that the parish's big ticket item – a proposal to spend $12 million for water main replacements for Water District No. 3 – did not appear to qualify for the hurricane recovery funds, although the upgrade to improve water pressure for the large water district is badly needed.

“It was a good try,” he said. “It just didn't make it.”

A proposal for $700,000 for land use planning leading to a parishwide zoning ordinance also appeared doomed.

Plaquemine attorney F. Barry Marionneaux, who represented the parish in its negotiations with the Westside Physicians and who heads the Land Use Commission, said consultants already are looking for other grant funds.

In any event, Ourso said, the hospital has a higher priority.

“Public health and safety comes first,” he said. “...We're going to bring back what was lost.”

Ourso said the hospital could be a “legacy project” for parish officials.

“This could be a good thing that we all could hang our hat on as we walk away from here,” he said.

At Monday's committee meeting, Councilman Salaris Butler of Seymourville said the success of a new facility would hinge on the parish's finding the right hospital operator; otherwise, it could prove to be an expensive mistake.

“This hospital could drain every fund this parish brings in,” Butler warned.

Marionneaux said one of the first steps would be to hire a consultant to secure a contract with a “high quality operator.” HUD also has an expert who could advise the council, he said.

Building the hospital is a “one-shot deal,” he said. “It's up to you guys to put together a solid relationship with a world class operator.”

Councilman Eugene P. Stevens Jr. of Plaquemine asked if the operator would get all of the profits from the hospital, or would the  parish share in them.

“I would think that is an issue that should be discussed and decided by the council,” Marionneaux said, suggesting investigating how other parishes handle the contract.

Marionneaux said the first issue facing the parish is building a facility that would attract an experienced operator.

The Iberville Chamber of Commerce and the Ourso administration already are looking for potential sites of 10 to 12 acres, which would include room for expansion, the attorney said.

Initially, he said, the building would be a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot facility that would include a 12 to 25 beds, an emergency room, a pharmacy, X-ray facilities and food service.

As of the first quarter of this year, hospital construction averaged $270 a square foot, Marionneaux said.

He said the second issue would be to find an operator that could afford to operate the hospital for 90 days without any Medicare or Medicaid support.

“You have to have a hospital open for 90 days to qualify for Medicare/Medicaid, so you need an operator with capital to stop in and run it for that period of time,” he said.