Eviction notice looms for Rossville health care clinic

Primary Healthcare runs a clinic on Suggs Street in Rossville. There is a dispute over value on the property.

Walker County, Ga., Commissioner Shannon Whitfield plans to put a clinic for low-income residents on notice: Pay up or get out in the next two months.

After a decade of the county charging Primary Healthcare Centers $1 a year, Whitfield and CEO Diana Allen have tried to negotiate a new lease for a building on Suggs Road in Rossville since August. Whitfield asked for $8,800 a month. Allen said the nonprofit center can't afford it.

Whitfield's response? Yes, you can.

"The county's not going to be continuing to prop up an entrepreneur that has a thriving million-dollar operation," he told the Times Free Press during a Dec. 28 interview.

He pointed to Primary Healthcare Centers' recent 990s, the nonprofit's publicly available financial documents. They show Allen's annual salary increased from $116,000 to $135,000 from 2013-15. Primary Healthcare Centers also had $1.1 million in net assets. The county, on the other hand, had a net position of negative $7 million in its most recent audit.

The nonprofit organization also just bought Hutcheson Medical Center's old hospice building for $280,000.

"They tell me they can't afford it," Whitfield said. "Well, we can't afford for them to continue to be there for free."

Allen said Whitfield is misleading the public with those figures. She said she is worth her salary, running a health care operation with six clinics in Northwest Georgia and 125 employees. She also said the center's net assets are mostly tied up in property, equipment and vehicles.

She said the true measure of what they can pay is how much cash they have on hand. But when asked how much Primary Healthcare Centers has in the bank, she declined to provide a figure, saying only "it isn't $300,000." (Whitfield said she also declined to provide him with a copy of her audit.)

"We have a very tight budget," she said, "and a tight day-to-day operation."

The clinic's aim is to provide health services to people who can't afford to go to a big hospital. Those people will need care one way or another, and if they don't have access at a clinic when they begin to feel sick, they may end up in the emergency room - at a greater social cost.

Allen said about half of the clinic's patients are low income or don't have insurance. She said they also rely heavily on Medicaid and Medicare coverage. In all, they serve about 4,500 people a year. Each patient averages a little more than two visits annually.

The location in Rossville is important, she said, because some patients don't have transportation. They walk or ride their electric scooters from their homes a couple of blocks away. The nonprofit's clinics at Tiger Creek and Gilbert elementary schools are too far for them.

Rossville is a city with plenty of social services needs. The median household income is $32,000 a year, about two-thirds that of the Chattanooga metropolitan area.

But Whitfield said the local government cannot continue to subsidize the operation. Under former commissioner Bebe Heiskell, the county covered the building's utilities and major maintenance, which Whitfield said cost $30,000 a year.

The commissioner also believes he is charging the fair market value for an 8,200-square-foot building. He said he brought in an appraiser, who valued the property at $1.1 million. Allen said a building in that area, near the collection of mobile home parks on James Street and Wilson Road, would not possibly net that kind of payment.

But Whitfield pointed out that the county was $70 million in debt, according to its last audit. And, to put a dent in the problem, he raised property taxes 50-70 percent last year. He said the rent request is on par for what a health clinic should pay. He is asking for $1.07 per square foot. CHI Memorial pays Chickamauga and LaFayette $1.08 per square foot to operate clinics out of their buildings.

Primary Healthcare Centers' lease expired at the end of August, Whitfield said, but he let it continue to operate in Rossville as they negotiated. He chose not to charge them in September but said rent would begin to accrue in October. Even so, the negotiation continues, and the county has not received money.

Last month, an attorney for Primary Healthcare Systems informed Whitfield that, actually, the clinic is allowed to stay there for another eight months. In August, when they were paying their annual rent, the attorney said, the clinic threw an extra dollar to the county, covering 2018. The county deposited that dollar into its account.

Whitfield does not believe that payment binds the county.

There is one other hitch in the deal: In 2007, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs gave Walker County $465,000 to renovate the building. Heiskell said she would use it as a clinic to help low-income residents. The money went toward a new roof, a new HVAC system and some structural repairs.

As part of the grant agreement, Heiskell promised that the county would use the building to serve low-income residents for 20 years. Rob Cowan, an attorney for Primary Healthcare Centers, said the Department of Community Affairs could punish the county if Whitfield does not use that building to help the intended population.

First, the state agency could demand some of that $465,000 back. Cowan said the Department of Community Affairs also could block Walker County from receiving some grants for a period.

Cowan said he has not heard back from Whitfield or county attorney Robin Rogers for the past month, since he sent them a letter trying to further negotiate the rent.

"It sounds to me like he's just ready to clear anybody out who had any contract with Bebe Heiskell," Cowan said. "It's bad for the community."

Nevertheless, Whitfield persists. He said he has contacted the Department of Community Affairs to ask them what else they would let him use the building for. He floated a couple of ideas: maybe an after-school center where children can receive tutoring and exercise. Or maybe another nonprofit organization will bring a clinic.

Allen said a new tenant will leave Whitfield in the same position.

"What's the issue he has with Primary Healthcare?" she said. "He's not going to make that kind of rent on any nonprofit he puts in there."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.