Parish takes new step toward medical facility

Staff reports

IIberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. and the Parish Council last week took steps toward buying a track of land on La. 1 South for the site of a new medical facility in the Plaquemine area.

Ourso signed on Monday a purchase agreement with Edward J. Gay Planting and Manufacturing Co., Ltd. to buy 27.55 acres of land at the intersection of La. 1 and Senator Gay Boulevard at $40,000 an acre, or a total price of $1.08 million. On Tuesday, the Parish Council voted 11-1 for an ordinance authorizing the parish to acquire a “fee title” to the property, leaving the mineral rights to the Gay company.

Last month, the council approved a cooperative endeavor agreement with Ochsner Clinic Foundation to operate a freestanding emergency room and walk-in clinic that the parish will construct with state and federal funds and lease to Ochsner for operation. The cooperative endeavor agreement hinges on the purchase of the La. 1 site.

And, the parish president said, the parish has two hurdles to clear before the land deal goes through – first, a federally-required environmental impact study and then approval by the Office of Community Development for the parish to use $22 million in federal hurricane recovery funds to build the medical facility.

The Louisiana Legislature also appropriated $3 million in state capital outlay funds to the project. Ourso said he has requested a line of credit for the state funds, and plans to discuss it with   Governor Bobby Jindal, who is expected at the SNF/Flopam facility on Friday.

The purchase agreement gives the parish until May 15, 2012, to accomplish those prerequisites, although there also are terms for an extension.

Parish Councilman Eugene P. Stevens Jr. of Plaquemine, a candidate for parish president against Ourso, cast the no vote, alluding to a “big secret deal,” which he said should have been laid out before the council was called on to act.

“This was brought up with no consultation between the administration and the council,” Stevens said.

Plaquemine attorney F. Barry Marionneaux, who represents the parish in the medical facility negotiations, said he had appeared twice before an executive session of the council and answered every question put to him.

“The council has been made aware every step of the way,” Marionneaux said, although some of the information could not be made public.

“I don't know what else I could have done to get you the facts you need,” Marionneaux said. “...I'm here to answer any question you have about this project.”

Stevens questioned why the parish had dropped negotiations with the Westside Physicians group that bought the River West Medical Center hurricane damaged buildings and grounds for $750,000 while another company was operating the facility just before a bankruptcy court closed it in April 2009.

Marionneaux said the parish spent $80,000 for engineers and architects to go through the hospital to assess what it would take to return it to service, and then hired an appraisal firm recommended by Westside Physicians' consultant.

When the appraisal came back at $1.08 million, the doctors turned the offer down, he said.

“The doctors said no three times. You want them to say no four times?” Marionneaux asked. “...We can't pay them more than the appraised value, and they want three times the appraised value.”

“Go back to the doctors and reopen negotiations,” said Plaquemine Selectman Howard Oubre Jr., who said River West has all the facilities the parish needs, including a helipad.

“We have two hospitals in Plaquemine, and neither one of them is open,” Stevens said.

Marionneaux said it would cost millions of dollars to reopen River West, and the federal hurricane recovery funds the parish has would not cover the cost of that or of building a new hospital.

“We have a partner in Ochsner who is willing to step up to the plate and give us first class service and an emergency room and a helipad,” the attorney said.

“That cuts revenues from the City of Plaquemine,” Oubre said.

“Just the opposite,” Marionneaux responded.

Dr. Cyriac Luke, a part owner of River West, contested the fairness of the “comparables” used in the appraisal.

“We bought it from a company that made millions and millions,” he said. “They just wanted to get rid of it.”