Town denies HCA water/sewer request

Despite pleas from Dr. Patti Wheeler, the Hehn family, and CEO/CNO of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital Tom Neal; commissioners recently voted 4 to 1 to deny water/sewer to HCA for proposed workforce housing on its property alongside the entrance to the hospital.

Neal approached the board in August and again in September outlining the urgent need for affordable housing for healthcare workers so he could fulfill the plan to grow hospital services.

“HCA would pay for all water/sewer costs; we are not asking the town to subsidize in any way. Potential employees are declining jobs, and we are losing employees because the distance and roads they have to drive on to get here,” said Neal. “Having workforce housing for our healthcare workers would help the hospital grow and create a path for sustainable long-term growth. As it is now, workers can’t afford to live here.”

He said he needs about 25 more employees to fill out the Eckerd Living Center as well as to staff incoming services like orthopedics and surgery.

Since the town was burned when the hospital sold Chestnut Hill to a private entity in 2002 and because the town has been adamant about not supplying water and sewer to residents or entities outside the town limits, Neal’s quest was a difficult one.

Despite his assurances that a ground lease and contract could be written up to protect the town should HCA leave in 8 ½ years and the property become something other than healthcare workforce housing, commissioners couldn’t be convinced.

Mayor Pat Taylor appointed Commissioners John Dotson and Amy Patterson to discuss the issue with Neal prior to October’s Town Board meeting to see if some common ground was possible.

Their report at last week’s Town Board meeting indicated there was no common ground to be had.

“I understand the need for workforce housing. But workforce housing on the original conceptual plan was not something we OK’d. We approved the sewer and then the hospital asked for water when it looked like their wells might go dry. We never signed off on a site plan for workforce housing so it’s not an automatic thing now,” said Commissioner Patterson. “It’s true that healthcare is an important aspect of our community and for the future of our community, but I’m not sure not making people commute is a reason for us to subsidize building workforce housing.”

She said a good portion of town staff comes up the mountain because “people live where they want to live.”

“Plenty of people want to work here but not live here. So that’s not a strong argument,” she said. 

Furthermore, she said the town giving a private for-profit corporation water and sewer increases that corporation’s assets and that’s a problem.

“This opens a can of worms for the Town of Highlands. Whether HCA stays or doesn’t stay should not be determined by us giving water and sewer for workforce housing,” she said.

Commissioner Dotson used census data to explain his view on the matter.

“Of 100 counties in North Carolina, Macon County is in the 10 shortest commute times of all 100 counties. I understand the need for employees to have affordable housing, but I am not in favor of granting the hospital the ability to improve its property value by building a residential community at the expense of Highlands’ citizens,” he said.

But Commissioner Marc Hehn said the hospital and the town never had a funding source like it has now. 

“The Dogwood Trust has $25 million left and this is a priority for funding if it’s requested by a nonprofit.”

But Mayor Taylor said Dogwood funding may be affected because it is struggling with major changes in its operation right now.

“The Dogwood Trust wouldn’t be able to fund anything with HCA because this would be an indirect subsidy for HCA which is a for-profit corporation,” he said. “If HCA was willing to build the facility Dogwood might have a different view. If workforce housing is that critical, and if HCA is making one million dollars a quarter, yet they aren’t willing to fund this … I have to wonder.”

Commissioner Donnie Calloway reminded the board that Highlands has been strict about not putting water and sewer outside the city limits. 

“I stood firm on that years ago when it was initially decided and I stand firm on it now,” he said.

Mayor Taylor said even if this was completely a nonprofit venture, what’s to prevent another nonprofit to ask for water and sewer?

“There already are people who want us to spread utilities outside the town limits,” he said.

Commissioner Hehn said he would like to keep the conversation going and to enlist the help of Town Attorney Jay Coward to work up a contract to protect the town. 

“HCA is an asset and it is constantly striving to improve the hospital. I think they are trying to help us and at this point it isn’t even making money,” he said.

Commissioner Dotson said the municipality of Highlands is not in the business of ensuring the profitability of any business of any sort.

Commissioner Patterson said she consulted with a few lawyers who said they could see problems down the road regardless of what we have in writing.

“If HCA chooses to leave, the situation would be too hard to pin down,” she said.

Commissioner Calloway made a motion to deny the request; Commissioner Dotson seconded it. All but Hehn agreed to deny the request.

Mayor Taylor said the town will try to work with HCA to ensure the institution is viable.

“We will still look at ways to support healthcare in Highlands and Cashiers,” he said.

At September’s committee meeting with Commissioners Patterson and Dotson, Neal said even if HCA’s request isn’t granted, they will figure out a way to hire more people so they can expand services at Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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