Walker County searching for social service provider
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.