Looking for a cure
UAMS not the solution to Washington County’s ills
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.