A proposed $35 million bailout of Hutcheson Medical Center is on hold.
The Catoosa County Commission was poised Thursday morning to issue $35 million in bond anticipation notes toward the Fort Oglethorpe hospital's roughly $60 million in debt.
But after meeting behind closed doors for 40 minutes, commissioners voted to table the matter before a standing-room-only crowd that showed up for the 9 a.m. special meeting.
Chairman Keith Greene said the commissioners need more information -- though he didn't specify what that information was.
"We don't take this decision lightly," Greene said. "There's a lot of risk involved."
Hospital employees and supporters, who made up the majority of the crowd, were crestfallen.
Hutcheson Chief of Staff John F. Nelson was in the audience.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed," said Nelson, who wrote an Aug. 28 open letter urging the counties to refinance the hospital's debt immediately, because the debt overshadowed the financial turnaround that Nelson said the hospital has experienced under President and CEO Roger Forgey.
"I still say the sooner the better," Nelson said, adding, "I didn't expect them to make the decision lightly."
But applause came from a smattering of activists opposed to the bailout.
"I think they did the right thing today. There's too much we don't know," said Joanna Skiles, a coordinator for Catoosa Campaign for Liberty, the county chapter of a nonprofit group founded in 2008 by presidential candidate Ron Paul.
The Catoosa Campaign for Liberty used Facebook to alert its members to Thursday's meeting, Skiles said. The group also weighed in at recent government meetings to oppose property tax hikes approved by the commission and the Catoosa County Schools.
Skiles said the county needs information such as an appraisal of Hutcheson's assets and audited financial statements.
Hutcheson is owned by Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties. Had Catoosa commissioners approved the bond anticipation notes, they would have shouldered refinancing part of the debt on their own because Walker and Dade officials want to wait until a new partner is found to manage the hospital before refinancing its debt.
Looking for options
Hutcheson registered technologist Jerry Jeffers was among the hospital employees who showed up at the meeting in blue hospital "scrubs."
"We've been in the black all year," Jeffers said, referring to the hospital's financial turnaround. "We're just looking for some options to help us recover from some of our previous administrations' decisions."
On Wednesday, Hutcheson issued a request for proposals to find a new management partner. Erlanger Health System is managing the hospital. A proposal will be selected in mid-November and a 60-day due diligence will begin, a hospital news release said. Once a final lease agreement is reached, it is subject to a 120-day review by the state attorney general.
Greene said Hutcheson still has access to a $3.3 million line of credit from Regions Bank backed by Catoosa and Walker counties.
Catoosa Commissioner Dewayne Hill was absent Thursday.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.