Walker County search­ing for so­cial ser­vice provider

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - OBITUARIES - BY TYLER JETT STAFF WRITER Con­tact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@times­freep­ress. com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Let­sJett.

Af­ter squab­bling with clinic ad­min­is­tra­tors for sev­eral months, Walker County, Ga., Com­mis­sioner Shan­non Whit­field needs to find a new ten­ant.

Last fall, Whit­field told Pri­mary Health­care Cen­ters CEO Diana Allen that her non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion would have to pay $8,800 a month to con­tinue rent­ing space at 1430 Suggs St., where the clinic has op­er­ated for 10 years. Allen said she could af­ford only $2,500 a month.

In the end, she’s pay­ing $2,500 a month — just not to Whit­field.

She reached an agree­ment Feb. 13 with the Walker County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, mov­ing the clinic about 2 1/2 miles south to the old Fairview El­e­men­tary School build­ing on Jenk­ins Road. She agreed to pay $30,000 for a one-year lease, be­gin­ning Thurs­day.

“They need to do what’s best for their com­pany, for their pa­tients,” Whit­field said dur­ing a pub­lic meet­ing last week. “If they feel like if that’s what’s best for them, we to­tally sup­port that. No hard feel­ings from this ad­min­is­tra­tion. We wish them the best.”

The deal leaves Walker County with an 8,800-square foot build­ing and a need for some sort of com­mu­nity ser­vice project. While Whit­field tried to ne­go­ti­ate with the clinic, both sides knew he was hand­i­capped. Ten years ago, be­fore the clinic opened on Suggs Street, for­mer County Com­mis­sioner Bebe Heiskell re­ceived a grant to ren­o­vate the build­ing from the Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Com­mu­nity Af­fairs.

The agency gave the county $460,000. As part of the agree­ment, Heiskell promised to use that build­ing to help low-in­come res­i­dents for 20 years. For the past decade, Pri­mary Health­care Cen­ters has been the an­swer, giv­ing some dis­counted and free ser­vices.

Whit­field needs to find a so­lu­tion. In De­cem­ber, he told the Times Free Press he thought they could find a new health care provider or a group that could pro­vide af­ter-school ser­vices. He wasn’t sure last week how long the Depart­ment of Com­mu­nity Af­fairs would give him to find a new ser­vice.

If he doesn’t come up with some­thing, the county would have to pay some of the ini­tial grant money back to the agency. A spokes­woman for the Depart­ment of Com­mu­nity Af­fairs did not re­turn a call seek­ing com­ment Tues­day.

“We’re go­ing to do some­thing very pro­duc­tive for the cit­i­zens,” Whit­field said last week. “So stay tuned and we should have some an­nounce­ments forth­com­ing.”

Un­der Heiskell, the county charged the clinic $1 a year to rent the build­ing. But Whit­field said the county could no longer af­ford to es­sen­tially give the space away. He paid for an au­dit of the build­ing and said it was worth $1.1 mil­lion. In Septem­ber, he asked for rent of $8,800 a month.

In late Jan­uary, af­ter Allen said the non­profit could not af­ford the rent, at­tor­neys for the county and the clinic met to try to ham­mer out a deal. County spokesman Joe Legge said Whit­field low­ered his of­fer to about $8,000, which would have also in­cluded the rent for a county-owned build­ing in LaFayette that Pri­mary Health­care Cen­ters had been rent­ing for ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices.

Legge said the deal would have lasted a year. If they wanted to sign a three-year lease, with­out the op­tion to back out, Pri­mary Health­care Cen­ters would pay $8,500 in year two and $9,000 in year three. Whit­field also asked them to pay for the build­ing’s util­i­ties, which he said cost an­other $30,000 a year.

Allen said Whit­field’s of­fers were “never in the ball­park of what we could af­ford.”

“It doesn’t mat­ter any­more,” she added. “We’ve re­solved it. They no­ti­fied us to get out. We’re look­ing for­ward. We’re ready to move on. We made our de­ci­sion. It just didn’t work out. We tried for months to ne­go­ti­ate.”

She said the non­profit and school sys­tem had ac­tu­ally talked about Fairview El­e­men­tary School’s cam­pus as a po­ten­tial lo­ca­tion for a clinic three years ago. They reached out to Walker County schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Da­mon Raines around Jan. 30, when Whit­field gave them a 60-day evic­tion no­tice.

She said the lease gives Pri­mary Health­care Cen­ters about 10,000 square feet. In ad­di­tion to the clinic, they will have about 5,000 square feet for ad­min­is­tra­tors’ of­fices. The staff will move from the county-owned LaFayette of­fice.

Allen hopes the staff can move the clinic by the end of March. They will email their pa­tients about the change, as well as post it on the Pri­mary Health­care Cen­ters’ Face­book page. They are also giv­ing pa­tients a let­ter when they en­ter the cur­rent clinic, telling them about the move.

Raines said the school’s old lobby will turn into a pa­tient wait­ing room. The clinic will be on the left side of the build­ing.

In 2017, Allen said 4,200 pa­tients vis­ited the clinic. On av­er­age, they each came 2-1/2 times over the course of the year. Of the pa­tients, 57 per­cent were unin­sured or re­ceived Med­i­caid.


Pri­mary Health­care runs a clinic on Suggs Street in Rossville.

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