You never know where you’ll meet a member of your tribe

The Friday Photo
July 29, 2016
IMG_1173

Wednesday afternoon I stopped to get gas after picking up some groceries in Milledgeville, the “big” city to the west of my home town of Sandersville. A small SUV pulled up at a pump diagonally to mine. The driver, a woman maybe in her mid 60s, jumped out of her car and started walking toward me, smiling as she approached me standing at the rear corner of my car.

With great enthusiasm in her voice she asked me where I got my bumper sticker. She looked so happy, like she had finally come across another kindred soul, that she gave me a high five and immediately started telling me how worried she is about Donald Trump becoming President.

I replied that the racism and hate people feel comfortable sharing is horrifying, adding that the judgmental attitudes about people who don’t look or behave like them is stunning.

She said she’s taken issue with people she knows who judge gay people as sinners, saying that her response has been, “Do you believe God made everyone, and does God make mistakes?”

From there she said friends and family had turned away from her after she came out as gay, and that others in her family have been treated similarly.

Think about that- a family shunned one of their own, not because she was a murderer or thief, but because she wanted to date women instead of men.

This woman then looked at my car tag and realized I live in a neighboring county, and she said, “You live in Washington County and you have this one your car? You are a brave woman.”

It’s not so hard to be a privileged, white, straight woman driving around rural Georgia with a Democratic pride sticker on your car. When it helps you find members of your tribe while doing the ordinary things in life, it is even easier.

Thank you Bonnie, for extending your hand, telling me your name and story, and saying We Are Stronger Together.

And the winners are…..

Current leadership in the Georgia General Assembly never fails to disappoint. This year’s session has been a catalog of hate-baiting legislation against LGBTQ citizens and people of faith (and no faith). Rape victims have been dismissed, and Georgia’s Guns Everywhere mentality threatens campuses across our state.

Creative Loafing Atlanta didn’t wait until the end of the session to announce this year’s Golden Sleaze Awards. If you want to hear keen political analysis of this year’s General Assembly session in Georgia, tune in to GPB’s Political Rewind at 3:00 this afternoon.

 

Washington County Commissioners want full control of our hospital

During the rare evening meeting of the Washington County Board of Commissioners  (WCBOC) last month, the Commissioners adopted a change to the Washington County Regional Medical Center (WCRMC) Hospital Authority (HA) that now officially places full control of the Hospital Authority in their hands.

The Commissioners approved a change to the HA that allows the Commissioners to appoint, and remove, all members of the HA.(Appointments_to_the_Hospital_Authority)
After it passed WCBOC Chair Horace Daniel said they made official what they were already doing.

After the monthly WCBOC meeting on January 14, 2016,, the Commissioners went into Executive Session with Hospital Authority Chair Rob Mathis and Vice-Chair Marc Sack. The Sandersville Progress coverage the following week quoted County Attorney Tom Rawlings saying, “We had a nice discussion about appointees/potential appointees to the Hospital Authority,” said County Attorney Tom Rawlings. “We had a nice discussion with current members of the Authority and the Commissioners about the makeup of personnel – those are personnel issues as well.”

Members of the Hospital Authority are volunteers- they aren’t paid. They don’t get paychecks from WCRMC because they aren’t hospital personnel.

The pedestrian shorthand for what qualifies for Executive Session is real estate purchases, personnel, and litigation. The January 20th issue of the Progress included a letter to the editor raising concerns about Open Meeting requirements. (The Open Meetings Rule was revised by the Georgia General Assembly in 2012. The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia posted a summary of the revisions on their site.)

The Hospital Authority held a called meeting the day after the Commission met. Mathis and Sack resigned. HA members Bobby Anderson and Adam Adolphus weren’t present, but the Progress reported that, “Written resignations were submitted.”

Jim Croome took up the work as the HA Chair,  John Brooker, Jr replaced Mark Sack as the Authority’s Vice-Chair, and Carla Belcher became the Secretary. Other HA members are Andre Jenkins, Andy Crabb, Raven Smith, and Terry Jackson.

The Washington County Commissioners have now positioned themselves in a very powerful position in regards to WCRMC.

Clearly they thought it was important to have their own slate of Authority members. The Progress’ coverage quoted HA Chair Rob Mathis saying, “There were concerns about Board members being here that overlap with the previous administration’s tenure.”

In doing that, the WCBOC have also removed all institutional history from the Authority. If an Authority member has a question about what happened, say, two years ago, there isn’t a single member among them who can answer. As a student of history, Edmund Burke’s quote,  “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” comes to mind.

Since the Commissioners will be able to appoint, and remove, all Authority members, will they tolerate members who won’t march in lockstep with their vision? Is our county now set up to see a revolving door of HA members if they don’t agree with directions passed down to them from the Commissioners?

The Commissioners have spent over $116,000 on a consultant whose best recommendation to date is a two page document that includes a request for more consultants.

They will soon have a stranglehold on who will sit on the Hospital Authority.

And they are asking Washington County property owners to back a $15.4M bond in May.

We can only hope the Commissioners know as much about running a hospital as they  think they do.

Who else is looking at WCRMC?

To give my urban readers a glimpse of rural life, the legal organ in Washington County, and the one that people mean when they ask, “Did you see this week’s paper?” is The Sandersville Progress. The Progress is published weekly, and has no online presence. They have been doing some really good coverage of the issues that have surfaced about Washington County Regional Medical Center.

One of the two local radio stations, Waco 100, includes local news coverage as part of their programming. Last week they posted a breakdown of the travel expenses incurred by Washington County’s hospital consultant Alan Richman, at InnoVative Capital.

As pointed out by the Progress and Waco 100, former County Administrator Chris Hutchings reminded Richman that he was requesting reimbursements without providing receipts.

I submitted two more Open Records Act requests last week. The more I learn, the more questions I have.

$15.4M of legalese

Nothing says exciting reading like a county bond resolution. If you want to pour over the legalese before Washington County citizens vote on the proposed $15.4M hospital bond in May, this is a short read.  WCBOC_bond_resolution_WCRMC_Feb_2016

update: Friday, February 26, 2016
If you language in the bond is clear as mud to you, I suggest contacting your County Commission representative for answers to your questions.

 

Contracts, consultants, and hotel bills

Note concerning documents: some of the documents I am posting pertaining to Washington County Regional Medical Center and the Washington County Board of Commissioners have notes and underlined portions. I have not marked up any of the documents, they are uploaded exactly as I received them. All documents here and in a February 15, 2015 post on Rural and Progressive were obtained through Georgia Open Records Act requests.

Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to have a fresh pair of eyes look things over. In September 2014 the Washington County Board of Commissioners (WCBOC)  received a contract from consultant Alan Richman, the President and CEO  at InnoVative Capital(IC).  Richman offered to assess and advise on several areas of hospital operations.

On October 9, 2014, Board of Commissioner Chair Horace Daniel signed the contract (InnoVative_Capital_contract_Sept_2014) . The contract detailed seven tasks for Richman to complete:

  • Hospital Financial and Operational Review
  • Staffing Study Review
  • Review of Outstanding WCRMC Funding Requests of Washington County
  • Review and Critique Management and Consulting Proposals Received by WCRMC
  • Identification of Issues Statement
  • Produce a Strategic Roadmap of Next Steps
  • Present Finding to Washington County

The contract included the possibility of an extension through December 2015. Washington County agreed to pay a “hospital consulting fee” totaling $40,000. A non-refundable payment of $20,000 was due when the contract was signed, and the remaining $20,000 would be paid when Richman presented his findings to the county.

My Open Records Act document search included an email to former County Manager Chris Hutchings in late March 2015 from Richman detailing his suggestion that additional consultants may be required for his project here. These consultants would be “retained” by Washington County. Richman credited the county’s earlier $20,000 payment to his new contract proposal and requested an additional $10,000. On April 13, 2015 Horace Daniel signed a new agreement on the county’s behalf that included a monthly payment to IC for $7,000 plus expenses. (InnoVative_Capital_contract_April_2015)

What is especially interesting about the April 2015 contract is item 14 on page 2: “If the Transaction involves the WCRMC’s Partner’s commitment to a replacement hospital or major renovation/project (“Hospital Modernization Project”), InnoVative Capital may provide mortgage banking services for this purpose under a separate contract with the WCRMC Partner, if asked to do so by the WCRMC Partner, the Hospital Authority, or the County.”

The county’s hospital consult also does mortgage banking services.

And bonds.

Think about that for a minute.

If the county’s consultant recommends a new hospital building or major improvements, he can then step up and offer financing services. If bonds are needed, Richman’s consulting company does those too.

And there’s more.

On pages 3-4, (InnoVative_Capital_contract_April_2015) the contract spells out what Richman’s company receives in different scenarios. for example:

  • The county requires debt funding of $7-10Million, signs an “External Management Contract” or extends the Management Agreement with University, or “retention of Replacement Internal Management”

If University Hospital is the signing partner InnoVative Capital would be paid a $40,000 transaction fee.

If a partner other than University was the Partner for an External Management Contract, Richman’s company would receive an  $80,000 fee.

  • WCRMC enters into a Lease or Change of Ownership  and the county has a net debt funding requirement of less than $5Million:

If University is the Partner, InnoVative Capital receives $100,00 plus 5% times the final Net Debt Funding required < than $5M

If a Partner other than University is engaged, IC makes more money. Richman’s company would be paid $140,000 plus 5% times the final Net Debt Funding required < than $5M

Any agreement or modernization project that didn’t include University Hospital meant a bigger check from Washington County for Richman’s work.

Richman made seven trips to Washington County that cost taxpayers $14,483.45. Some of Richman’s expense reimbursements are a simple word document with no receipts attached. However, the request submitted on  June 29, 2015 reveals that Richman’s hotel of choice isn’t anywhere near Sandersville. The county’s consultant stays at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta’s toney Buckhead district near the Governor’s Mansion, and commutes to Sandersville in a rental car. (see page 10 InnoVative_Captial_invoices)

Richman submitted another contract for his services in November of last year, one that would run from November through July 2016. Richman’s monthly consulting fee jumped from $7,000 per month to $10,000 per month, an increase of almost 43 percent. Horace Daniel committed the county to the higher monthly consulting fee when  he signed the contract on November 13, 2015. (InnoVative_Capital_contract_November_2015)

The November 2015 contract includes a list of 12 items for Richman to work through. Item 8 reads, “Identify potential partners for the County and Authority and work to make the process competitive, if possible.”

If possible.

Hospital leaders here did a call for proposals for management/lease options in the fall of 2014 from nine companies/organizations. University, Navicent Health, and Augusta University were among the nine asked to submit proposals. The resulting document includes a response from University but nothing from Navicent. Augusta University (Georgia Regents Health system at the time, still often called the Medical College of Georgia) was interested in a partnership but “without any change in management,” i.e. they didn’t want to run our hospital.
( see the last page in WCRMC_requests_for_proposals_fall_2014)

We had a plum lease agreement from University Hospital last spring that was left on the table by county leaders (University_proposal_to_WCRMC_April_29_2015). Navicent Health never made an offer last summer, which prompted local officials to pursue a partnership with Augusta University Hospital (which had already said it didn’t want to manage WCRMC).

The contract Horace Daniel signed in November includes a scope of services for Richman to complete. The resulting recommendations for the county to consider are contained in no more than two pages in a January 21, 2016 document, titled Washington County Regional Medical Center-Plan B:Repurposing WCRMC-Business Plan Development is “for discussion purposes only.”

The proposed plan development team includes two consulting firms in addition to InnoVative Capital. Richman allows for eight weeks of work. Depending on the amount of work required, the fees for the market and financial feasibility consulting firm DHG Healthcare could range from $35,000-$45,000. Adams Management Services, a capital consulting company, would ring in at $12,500. Both companies would also bill for expenses in addition to their fees.

Who would manage this project?

If you guessed Richman proposed that his company should serve as the Project Manager you would be right.

Through January 2016 Washington County taxpayers have spent $102,000 on consulting FullSizeRenderfees to InnoVative Capital. Combine those fees with $14,483.45 in travel expenses, and we’ve spent $116,483.45.

The more time I spend reading these documents, the more I scratch my head.

Of course we need a hospital here, and it should be a good one. We are fortunate to have good doctors and hospital staff who want their friends and family to receive the best care possible, at home, when they need it.

I don’t expect the bond to fail in May, and I am not suggesting that people consider voting against it.

What we need to understand as voters and property owners, is that we didn’t get to this question overnight. We are more likely to hold our local leaders accountable for our hospital’s sustainability if we know the full story.

The documents behind a $15.4M question

Washington County Regional Medical Center (WCRMC) has steep financial challenges. That doesn’t make the rural hospital in Middle Georgia unique.

The solution proposed by recently appointed Hospital Authority members led by Chair Jim Croome, and, the Washington County Board of Commissioners (WCBOC), is to ask the county to approve a $ 15.4Million dollar bond.

The debt that citizens can choose to take on in a May referendum will fund $9M for infrastructure, IT, and computers at WCRMC. Property owners will have to decide if their personal budgets can stretch to take on more in property taxes to also give the hospital $6.4M to pay down debt, address pension plans, and general operations.

Last year the Washington County Tax Commissioner included a neon green insert with 2015 property tax bills stating that one mil of their taxes was being used for the hospital.

Last year county leaders could have chosen a course of action that might have made last week’s 2.5+ hours county commission meeting a lot shorter.

In late April 2015, county and hospital leaders had an option to improve operations and secure $5Million in capital improvements through an offer from University Hospital in Augusta. A management agreement already in effect between the two hospitals had already secured a $1Million line of credit for WCRMC.

University’s offer included a 20 year lease with an option for Washington County to sell the hospital if it decided that was the best course of action (University held first right of refusal. After that Washington County could pursue another buyer: page 3, University_proposal_to_WCRMC_April_29_2015). University guaranteed 24/7 Emergency Department operations, surgical and inpatient nursing services, and diagnostic and imaging services.

The lease proposal also stated that University, “will not seek any support from Washington County for the operation of WCRMC” during the first five years of the lease agreement (page 3, University Hospital offer to WCRMC April 2015).

University has already proven it can right-size a small hospital; just ask McDuffie County residents and patients at University McDuffie County Hospital.

Instead of saying “No thanks” to the offer, the Washington County Commissioners took a different tack, one that broke the management agreement with University and a retraction of their April offer.

County Attorney Tom_Rawlings hand-delivered letters on June 8th to local doctors inviting them to a private meeting with Navicent Health representatives from Macon to “structure a partnership with a larger hospital system.’ The meeting wasn’t planned for county offices or Rawlings’ office , both located on the high visibility Courthouse Square.

Instead, the June 8th meeting to discuss a possible relationship with Navicent was planned at Daniels Heating, Air, and Electrical just north of Sandersville, where cars travel pass at 55 MPH. The Chair of the Washington County Board of Commissioners is Horace Daniels.

While Navicent Health was planning a meeting with Washington County leaders and physicians, their 11 month old management arrangement with neighboring Oconee Regional Medical Center was spiraling towards a fatal crash.

The meeting Rawlings convened where the WCBOC Chair works violated the Management Agreement between University and WCRMC according to a letter dated June 12 from University’s CEO Jim Davis.

Davis closed his letter with, “We wish you and the Commissioners the best of luck in preserving a hospital in Washington County.”

Washington County leaders signed an agreement with University that secured a $1Million line of credit for our hospital. The organization that right-sized McDuffie County’s hospital proposed a 20 year lease agreement with $5Million of improvements to our struggling hospital. It did not include a request for $15.4Million in bond debt funded by Washington County property owners. It did include a restriction on future requests for taxpayer dollars.

Washington County needs a good hospital. Voters should have an opportunity to read the documents that brought us to a $15.4Million bond referendum in May. As I work through more documents I’ll post them here.

Legalizing hate in Georgia

It only took three days before the Georgia General Assembly saw a bill filed that, if passed and signed by Governor Deal, will mark us a state that allows discrimination based on religious faith. Filed by Republican Representative Kevin Tanner of Dawsonville, HB756 allows business owners the right to deny services or the selling of goods to a “religious organization” or for a “religious or matrimonial ceremony” if the business owner says the organization or ceremony conflicts with his/her right to exercise their religious freedom.

That means HB756 legalizes discrimination by florists, bakers, bridal shops, caterers, wedding sites, and other businesses connected to the wedding industry, simply because the business owner personally opposes the marriage. That’s legislative code for opposing same-sex marriage.That also means the business owner can do the same if they don’t like the tenants of a religious organization.

In other words, if you don’t worship where I worship, I don’t have to treat you like I would the members of my church when you come into my place of business.

I used the word “church” because HB756 specifies churches for protection under this law. Temples, mosques, and other places of worship are not described at all, just churches. 

HB756 reads, “the term ‘religious organization’ means a church, a religious school, an association or convention of churches, a convention mission agency, or an integrated auxiliary of a church or convention or association of churches…”
Christians go to church, Jews attend synagogues or temples, and Hindus and Muslims worship in temples. Tanner and Hb756 co-sponsors Tom Rice, R-Norcross, Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, and Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, know this, and their choice of words is telling. They want to make sure churchgoers are afforded the right to discriminate.

Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is only supporting Tanner’s other bill, HB757, called the “Pastor Protection Bill,” a bill that allows a minister to decline a request to perform a marriage ceremony if it conflicts with his/her beliefs.

Of course there shouldn’t be legislation allowing a person who is licensed by the state to perform legal ceremonies, to deny services to anyone, but this move to “protect” pastors pales in comparison to Tanner’s HB756.

The wedding industry is huge, and state coffers benefit greatly from them. Hotel rooms are booked, gas tanks filled, gifts sent, clothing bought, and bouquets tossed to guests. Legalizing hate in HB756 doesn’t make legal sense or good economic sense.

Still waiting on a call from the EPD (but Georgia Power has been on the phone)

Yesterday (Wednesday, January 6) The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) asked if they could repost R&P’s post from Tuesday, January 5th about Georgia Power pumping water from their Plant Branch coal ash ponds into Lake Sinclair over the weekend.

They reposted, and Georgia Power picked up the phone and set up a conference call with SACE and Jen Hilburn, the Altamaha Riverkeeper who discovered the pumping last weekend.

SACE has added this to their reposting of my original blog:
Subsequent to our posting of this article, Georgia Power contacted us to clarify that emergency overflow pumping was taking place as part of their emergency response plans, consistent with the facility’s permit, due to unusually high rainfall. The overflow is designed to prevent water over-topping the dyke and damaging it through erosion. While overflow water comes from the surface of the pond and has less exposure to toxic ash, which settles to the bottom, we remain concerned about the risks of wet ash storage demonstrated by this episode. Georgia Power aims to publish closure plans for all its ash ponds in Spring 2016 and we look forward to reviewing those plans to ensure they keep ash in lined facilities away from waterways.

Like SACE and the Altamaha Riverkeeper, I am very concerned about both the storage of wet coal ash so close to Lake Sinclair, and the pumping of  water from their ponds into Lake Sinclair.

Georgia Power should have been proactive in sharing information with the public about their actions. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) should have been on site in the “emergency” situation Georgia Power is claiming (The record rains weren’t a surprise, and the proximity to Lake Sinclair isn’t new at Plant Branch either).

But that’s not all of it.

Georgia Power and the EPD told Hilburn they were testing the water.

Jen Hilburn on Lake Sinclair at Plant Branch
Jen Hilburn on Lake Sinclair at Plant Branch

But Georgia Power and the EPD don’t test for heavy metals and toxins found in coal ash waste. They test for oil and grease, pH, and sediment/particulate concentration.

If you don’t test for coal ash toxins, then you surely won’t find them.

Hilburn was told by Georgia Power that it will continue pumping water from their coal ash ponds into Lake Sinclair.

And the EPD?

As of 6:30 this evening, the Altamaha Riverkeeper says she is still waiting for phone messages to be returned from her weekend calls about Lake Sinclair and Plant Branch.

Georgia Power doesn’t seem interested in calling me, and that’s ok, but apparently they have read Rural and Progressive.

 

 

What was Georgia Power doing at Plant Branch on New Year’s weekend?

Georgia’s coal ash monitoring laws are awfully easy on power companies. The companies get to monitor their heaping piles of coal ash waste piles and ponds themselves.

Thank goodness the Altamaha Riverkeeper (aided by Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper) checked up on the coal ash ponds at Plant Blanch, which abut Lake Sinclair, last weekend.

There was a lot of activity there on Saturday, with large trucks in and out at the ponds and generators buzzing due to the tremendous amount of rain recently.

What was flowing into the lake just didn’t look like normal runoff, so Jen Hilburn, Altamaha Riverkeeper (ARK),  put in a call to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. Hilburn said in a press release, “I am deeply concerned about what sounds like pumping of water into Lake Sinclair.  If this is coming directly from the coal ash ponds into the lake, it could pose a threat to our community on the lake as well as many others who utilize its waters. Georgia Power appears to be delibrately dumping coal ash waste directly into the lake. I am surprised that no-one I spoke with on Lake Sinclair had been notified in anyway by Georgia Power of their activities”

coal ash spill at Kingston, TN, photo from New York Times
coal ash spill at Kingston, TN, photo from New York Times

Coal ash ponds are notorious for leaking, or worse, collapsing, as they did in Kingston, TN on December 22, 2008. That community was flooded with 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry from a TVA coal plant. Coal ash waste also contaminated the Dan River on the Virginia-North Carolina state line in 2014 as a result of nine criminal violations of the Clean Water Act by Duke Energy. 

How risky are the coal ash ponds at Plant Branch?

Since 2010 Plant Branch’s coal ash ponds have been considered “High Hazard” for contamination or failure by the Environmental Protection Agency. Did Georgia Power try to avert a pond breach or overflow by  pumping the coal ash waste into Lake Sinclair? I’m anxious to learn what the EPD says in their findings.

While ARK, and concerned citizens, wait to hear back from the EPD, the Riverkeeper is advising that no fish be consumed from Lake Sinclair until more is known about the safety of the water.

What can Georgians do in the meantime?

Our General Assembly convenes next week. Ask your state legislators NOW to require stricter monitoring of the coal ash waste landfills and ponds that pepper our state. Even though wind and solar are becoming a larger part of our fuel resources, the heavy metals and toxins in coal ash waste are forever. As last weekend demonstrates, shuttering a coal plant like Plant Branch doesn’t solve the problem of safely storing the contaminated waste it has left behind.

Allowing Georgia Power and other coal burning companies in our state to self-monitor their toxic waste isn’t working. The Georgia General Assembly can do something about that beginning next week.

 

Through a child’s eye

The Friday Photo
December 18, 2015

12369182_10208375557452912_3859738501300737842_n
photo by Ella Cummings, 8 years old

Last weekend my granddaughter used an old iPhone to take
pictures during our overnight trip to Atlanta. She took this
picture in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

Photo unavailable

The Friday Photo
December 11, 2015

I couldn’t manage a photo of what I saw this week, but it bears describing.

At an office supply store I watched an elderly man getting information for some type of technology problem he couldn’t solve. The young man at the service counter very patiently repeated what needed to be done, and assured the customer that if he brought the item in, the problem could be solved. The customer left to go get the item out of of his car.

The elderly man was wearing Confederate flag suspenders and a replica Confederate battle cap. The polite young man at the counter was black.

The irony was almost more than I could stand.

 

 

 

Is R&P suffering from writer’s block?

Yesterday two people I respect talked with me about politics, their work, and Rural and Progressive. Conversations like that make me miss the work I have done that is immersed in politics (but not miss it so much that I’ll go back. It is very hard).

I explained that the recent horrors coupled with American politics, have left me unable to wrap my head around the constant hate so prevalent in the world. Two days after the Planned Parenthood clinic shooting in Colorado, I wrote in circles about women’s health care, legislation, and the violence raining down on innocent people who pass through clinic doors. Finally at turned off my computer and moved on to something else. 

This might be an ideal time for others, who can get their thoughts collected and on paper (or a screen monitor), to submit posts for Rural and Progressive. The writer will get full credit, of course. If you are interested, or know someone who might be, have them contact me at katherine@katherinecummings.net  

And the world took note

The Friday Photo
November 6, 2015

photo credit 350.org
photo credit 350.org

Keystone XL has been cancelled, at last. I was lucky enough to be at Forward on Climate, which, until a year ago, was the largest climate action in the United States. My story of that incredible event almost three years ago is here.