Community News Walker County seeks public service solution for Rossville facility

Community News Walker County seeks public service solution for Rossville facility

March 7th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Community North Georgia

Primary Healthcare is moving from this clinic on Suggs Street in Rossville. Following the move, the county will be pressed to move another resource for low-income residents into the 8,800-square-foot building, a condition for the grant that helped refurbish the space under former Commissioner Bebe Heiskell.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Walker County could have to pay back some of a $460,000 grant. Or it could have new services coming for low-income residents.

Ten years ago, former County Commissioner Bebe Heiskell received a grant from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs to renovate the building at 1430 Suggs St. As part of the agreement, Heiskell promised to use that building to help low-income residents for 20 years.

For the past decade, Primary Healthcare Centers has been the answer, giving some discounted and free services. But after months of negotiation with current Commissioner Shannon Whitfield, the clinic is moving out.

Last fall, Whitfield told Primary Healthcare Centers CEO Diana Allen that her nonprofit organization would have to pay $8,800 a month to continue renting space. Allen said she could afford only $2,500 a month.

In the end, she's paying $2,500 a month — just not to Whitfield.

She reached an agreement Feb. 13 with the Walker County Board of Education, moving the clinic about 2 1/2 miles south to the old Fairview Elementary School building on Jenkins Road. She agreed to pay $30,000 for a one-year lease beginning March 1.

"They need to do what's best for their company, for their patients," Whitfield said. "If they feel like if that's what's best for them, we totally support that."

In December, Whitfield told the Times Free Press he thought they could find a new health care provider or a group that could provide after-school services. He wasn't sure how long the Department of Community Affairs would give him to find a new service.

If he doesn't come up with something, the county would have to pay some of the initial grant money back to the agency. A spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs did not return a call seeking comment.

"We're going to do something very productive for the citizens," Whitfield said. "So stay tuned and we should have some announcements forthcoming."

Under Heiskell, the county charged the clinic $1 a year to rent the building. But Whitfield said the county could no longer afford to essentially give the space away. He paid for an audit of the building and said it was worth $1.1 million. In September, he asked for rent of $8,800 a month.

In late January, after Allen said the nonprofit could not afford the rent, attorneys for the county and the clinic met to try to hammer out a deal. County spokesman Joe Legge said Whitfield lowered his offer to about $8,000, which would have also included the rent for a county-owned building in LaFayette that Primary Healthcare Centers had been renting for administrative offices.

Legge said the deal would have lasted a year. If they wanted to sign a three-year lease, without the option to back out, Primary Healthcare Centers would pay $8,500 in year two and $9,000 in year three. Whitfield also asked them to pay for the building's utilities, which he said cost another $30,000 a year.

Allen said Whitfield's offers were "never in the ballpark of what we could afford."

"It just didn't work out," she said. "We tried for months to negotiate."

She said the nonprofit and school system had actually talked about Fairview Elementary School's campus as a potential location for a clinic three years ago. They reached out to Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines around Jan. 30, when Whitfield gave them a 60-day eviction notice.

Allen said the new lease gives Primary Healthcare Centers about 10,000 square feet. In addition to the clinic, they will have about 5,000 square feet for administrators' offices. The staff will also move from the county-owned LaFayette office.

Allen hopes the staff can move the clinic by the end of March. They will email their patients about the change, as well as post it on Primary Healthcare Centers' Facebook page. They are also giving patients a letter when they enter the current clinic, telling them about the move.

Raines said the school's old lobby will turn into a patient waiting room. The clinic will be on the left side of the building.

In 2017, Allen said 4,200 patients visited the clinic. On average, they each came 2-1/2 times over the course of the year. Of the patients, 57 percent were uninsured or received Medicaid.

Email Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com.


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