Look­ing for a cure

UAMS not the so­lu­tion to Wash­ing­ton County’s ills

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

The search for money to op­er­ate county gov­ern­ment is in full tilt in Wash­ing­ton County, where some lead­ers think tak­ing money away from the Univer­sity of Arkansas for Med­i­cal Sciences north­west cam­pus might be part of the cure for their bud­getary ail­ments.

First-year County Judge Joseph Woods, the county’s other full-time elected of­fi­cials and the county’s Quo­rum Court have an un­en­vi­able task: Stem the fi­nan­cial bleed­ing in county gov­ern­ment. Stat!

For years now, the jus­tices of the peace who set the county’s spend­ing lev­els have col­lec­tively opted to bud­get more than the county takes in, ar­ti­fi­cially main­tain­ing spend­ing lev­els by re­ly­ing on re­serves tucked away in past years. The spend­ing gap this year is ex­pected to be around $5 mil­lion as the bud­get now stands. It was around $4 mil­lion last year.

In that en­vi­ron­ment, one can hardly blame those county lead­ers for ex­haus­tively search­ing for a rem­edy.

A decade ago, the Univer­sity of Arkansas for Med­i­cal Sciences es­tab­lished its north­west cam­pus at the cor­ner of North Street and Col­lege Av­enue in Fayet­teville. For more than five decades, that was the lo­ca­tion of the pri­mary hos­pi­tal serv­ing Fayet­teville and sur­round­ing ar­eas. Wash­ing­ton Re­gional Med­i­cal Cen­ter moved to a newly built fa­cil­ity in north Fayet­teville in 2002.

The build­ing the hos­pi­tal de­parted was, and is, owned by the county. At the time of the hos­pi­tal’s move, the ques­tion of what the county would do with the for­mer hos­pi­tal prop­erty loomed. It was in­deed a cause for cel­e­bra­tion when UAMS com­mit­ted to oper­at­ing an ex­ten­sion of the Lit­tle Rock-based med­i­cal school on the site. It was a de­vel­op­ment that took co­op­er­a­tion of county lead­ers, lo­cal hos­pi­tals, and law­mak­ers from North­west Arkansas work­ing to de­velop fund­ing sources for UAMS.

The ex­pan­sion in Fayet­teville wasn’t uni­ver­sally em­braced. Some in other parts of the state didn’t like the idea of a branch. Still oth­ers hoped the branch would be placed else­where. Among the sites con­sid­ered were Texarkana, Pine Bluff and Fort Smith. Wash­ing­ton County lead­ers were thrilled to lease the for­mer hos­pi­tal and sur­round­ing county-owned prop­er­ties to UAMS.

Flash for­ward to 2017 and county of­fi­cials ap­pear thrilled with an­other prospect: Tak­ing back con­trol of prop­er­ties UAMS sub­leases. The med­i­cal school, which pays $1 a year for the county prop­er­ties un­der a 25-year agree­ment, earns $648,110 an­nu­ally through the sub­leases.

Wood has said he’s ex­plor­ing the idea of sell­ing some of the county’s 51 prop­er­ties or de­vel­op­ing it to help al­le­vi­ate the pro­jected bud­get short­fall. Wood was clear he’s not in­ter­ested in tak­ing over the prop­erty UAMS is us­ing.

Cer­tainly, no one can fault a new ad­min­is­tra­tion for ex­am­in­ing ev­ery av­enue for fund­ing as it searches for a cure for what fi­nan­cially ails the county. Sev­eral jus­tices of the peace ap­pear to be licking their chops at the dol­lar signs, reap­ing the re­ward from the work UAMS has put into sub­leas­ing the prop­er­ties.

Hope­fully, county lead­ers will take into ac­count the cel­e­bra­tory spirit in which the UAMS agree­ment was wel­comed in 2007 and rec­og­nize the value hav­ing a med­i­cal school in Fayet­teville presents for North­west Arkansas. The fact that UAMS has prop­erly man­aged the re­sources avail­able to it should be rec­og­nized as a pos­i­tive. Had the Quo­rum Court been so suc­cess­ful in man­ag­ing its re­sources in past years, per­haps it wouldn’t be as nec­es­sary to try to sur­gi­cally re­move the med­i­cal school’s rev­enue-pro­duc­ing ar­range­ments.

Wood cer­tainly ought to be do­ing what he’s do­ing — eval­u­at­ing all pos­si­bil­i­ties for county-owned prop­er­ties. But UAMS shouldn’t have a tar­get on its back.

It’s in the county’s in­ter­est — in­deed, the com­mu­nity’s in­ter­ests — to sup­port UAMS in its ed­u­ca­tional ef­forts at the north­west cam­pus. Now, 10 years af­ter the agree­ment that put the school there, it may be easy to view UAMS as solely a state re­spon­si­bil­ity, but Wash­ing­ton County was thrilled a decade ago when its empty hos­pi­tal build­ing gained a tenant, one that un­doubt­edly has had a pos­i­tive im­pact on meet­ing North­west Arkansas’ med­i­cal needs in the 21st cen­tury.

It’s been good medicine for the re­gion. Am­pu­tat­ing the school’s suc­cess in sub­leas­ing those other prop­er­ties isn’t the cure for Wash­ing­ton County’s ills.

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