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Jones targets KershawHealth at Tuesday KCC meeting

Posted: February 14, 2013 6:12 p.m.
Updated: February 15, 2013 5:00 a.m.

A proposal to purchase two ambulances for KershawHealth escalated into a strong rebuke of the healthcare organization by Kershaw County Councilman Jimmy Jones during a council meeting Tuesday despite joining a unanimous vote to approve the measure.

Jones criticized KershawHealth’s financial decision-making ahead of the vote, particularly questioning the need to use taxpayer dollars to buy the two vehicles. He focused his criticism on the compensation levels of the hospital’s administration and said he wished KershawHealth would have cut the salary levels of their “CEOs” in order to save money.

By making such a move, Jones said, the hospital could have bought the ambulances without using taxpayer funds. Instead, the vehicles, which cost a total of $318,000, will be purchased using money generated by the county’s solid waste fee, charged annually to county residents to dispose of solid waste. Jones also pointed to $1.5 million in lost revenue for KershawHealth over the past year and called for fairer pay raises for the hospital’s employees.

In spite of his criticism, he also stressed the importance of having adequate ambulance service in the county, leading to his decision to join the rest of council and support the purchase.

KershawHealth President and CEO Donnie Weeks said Wednesday that while Jones’ claim of the $1.5 million drop in revenue was true, the hospital actually had more cash on hand this fiscal year compared to last year because of prudent financial decisions. Weeks noted the hospital also had more cash on hand currently than even in 2008 before the economic recession began.

“Our cash position is very strong,” Weeks said. “Certainly when we have a year that has a loss, we don’t want that to continue, but this is a time in healthcare in America when many hospitals operate in losses now that didn’t have them before. It’s a trying time for all hospitals, including ours.”

Additionally, he said that in most parts of the state, the county “picks up the bill” for ambulance service, including the cost of the ambulance and the operating deficit, the difference between total expenditures and total revenue.

“I don’t know of any hospital out there where the hospital has to carry the deficit and buy the ambulances,” he said, noting KershawHealth has not asked the county to make up the operating deficit and has also purchased a number of ambulances itself over the years. 

Back at Tuesday’s meeting, Jones also expressed concerns over transparency issues with the KershawHealth Board of Trustees.

Calling the board’s activity “illegal,” he strongly criticized the length of its executive sessions, noting the closed-door sessions have sometimes lasted for two-and-a-half hours.

However, S.C. Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers, an expert on the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, said there are no time limits when it comes to executive sessions and consequently, the board’s actions are not illegal in that regard.

During his comments Tuesday, Jones particularly disapproved of the way meetings are led by Board Chairman Scott Ziemke, who he said “obviously doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

When reached for comment Wednesday, Ziemke acknowledged the board has discussed the manner in which meetings are conducted, but offered no further comment at this time.

Despite his strong criticism, Jones did offer praise for individual members of the board. He especially commended the work of recently appointed board members Karen Eckford, Derial Ogburn, Steve Holliday Jr., and Paul Napper, as well as Dr. Tallulah Holmstrom, who has served on the board since the fall of 2009.

“They’re free thinkers,” Jones said. “They’re fighting for transparency. They’re fighting for sunshine to be brought on that board.”

He also felt council should move deliberately, yet quickly when making the next round of hospital board appointments. 

“I feel we need to make those appointments this June and go ahead and get some free thinkers on that board,” Jones said. “Those that are there, that have been there, they are rubber stamping. I think they have a ring through their nose and are lead to the trough to drink the water.”

Council will next be tasked with filling the expired terms of three board members -- George Corbin, Donald Witham, and Ziemke -- before their terms end Sept. 30.

 

Historic Camden, welcome center?

Also Tuesday, council heard a presentation from Historic Camden Foundation Board of Directors Chairman Dr. Tray Dunaway concerning the county’s welcome center. Dunaway proposed shifting control of the welcome center to Historic Camden away from the Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce, noting he felt the site was “already the de facto welcome center.”  

Under the direction of the chamber, the welcome center is located at the Historic Robert Mills Courthouse, which also serves as the home of the chamber.

Jones applauded Dunaway for his work at Historic Camden, but said he felt the chamber’s office is in a “highly visible location” and widely recognized as the “go-to place” for visitor information.   

Council Chairman Gene Wise said he believed the chamber has “done a great job” overall, but still wanted to approach the situation with a business mentality and analyze the possibility of a change. Wise tasked county staff with preparing a quantitative analysis and recommendation so council could “see the best way to serve tourism” in the county and the city of Camden.

Councilman Stephen Smoak agreed with Wise, saying council should seek feedback from the community and at least consider the possible change of location. Smoak explained council did not want to pit the two organizations against each other, but still wanted to weigh all the options and make the best decision possible.  

After Tuesday’s meeting, Chamber Executive Director Liz Horton said she will supply county staff with any information needed to help make a decision, but strongly believes the chamber should continue to serve as the county’s official welcome center.

In other business, council:

•unanimously approved first reading of an ordinance amending the county’s zoning code related to the definition of a street. Kershaw County Administrator Carpenter said the proposal would amend the number of lots that could be put on a road.

•removed an agenda item listing a public presentation from Dr. William Schoolmeester of KershawHealth; and

•entered executive session to discuss a personnel matter and an ongoing legal matter.

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