Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news from Florida for working families since 2007

Lake Shore Hospital Authority

Lake Shore Hospital Authority: Tonight, Governor’s Board To Hear Hospital Proposal from Meridian Behavioral Health Care

Part I - Background and Support

Young woman with head in hands with caption: There is a world wide mental health crisis. Some Lake City merchants are saying: Not in my backyard.
Photo: Dev Asangbam via Unsplash  |   Columbia County Observer graphic

More LSHA stories are here.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – The Lake Shore Hospital Authority’s Shands at Lake Shore Hospital has been vacant since October 2020. At that time, having just been paid by Community Health Systems (CHS) to buy out its lease, the Authority had $23,559,266 in the bank. It has been a sad story ever since.

The meeting is carried on Zoom.

Foot-dragging by the Governor’s illegally constituted Board and its part-time Executive Director, North Florida's legendary "Mr. Columbia County" Dale Williams, has seen the Authority’s bank account bleed down over the past almost two years by over two million dollars; most of it to pay operating expenses for its vacated hospital.

The Governor's board:

Lory Chancy – a liberal democrat at heart when it comes to public health access;

Brandon Beil – a well-placed Republican and head of the Chamber of Commerce;

Stephen Douglas – a professional in the construction industry with an excellent republican pedigree;

Don Kennedy – The newest board member, a nice guy who mystically appeared on the Authority board after not showing an interest in anything LSHA.

Part-time Authority Director Williams does not provide a rundown of the monthly expenses to keep the vacated hospital operable. The Governor's board has not made that request.

Missing from the Authority Board is a doctor who practices at Shands Lake Shore Hospital. The enabling legislation of the Authority says this is a “must do.”

Must-do’s are something that Columbia County/Lake City often does not take seriously.

Special Districts

There are 1800 plus special districts in Florida.

The LSHA is an independent special taxing district. Columbia County citizens are taxed without representation by a board appointed by the Governor.

Authority board membership has become a prized political plum and resume builder for some.

Since 2006, if a board member asked too many questions, they were shown the highway. Former board member and bank president Bruce Naylor is the prime example.

Board members, their relatives, or really close friends doing business with the Authority have routinely been ignored.

Tonight’s Proposer: Meridian Behavioral Health Care

Don Savoie, Meridan Behavioral CEO
Meridian's President Don Savoie makes a preliminary presentation in March.

Meridian Behavioral Health Care (Meridian) recently celebrated 50 years of service in North Central Florida. It has clients almost to the Atlantic Ocean in the east and the Alabama border on the west. Meridian services 13 counties. It operates with a $50 mil plus budget.

According to CEO Don Savoie, forty-plus percent of Meridian’s revenue comes from state and federal grants, and another forty percent plus comes from Medicaid.

Mental health is a national and worldwide problem. Dr. James Lake of Kaiser Permanente has explained that mental illness accounts for "roughly one-third of adult disability globally."

Meridian’s Don Savoie explained to your reporter that one in five people suffer from mental illness. He said, “They are us – they are all of us. It is not a socioeconomic issue, and one in nine suffers with substance abuse… It's a universal need, no different than any other healthcare service.”

Tonight, Meridian’s CEO is scheduled to make its presentation to the Governor’s board.

Mr. Savoie said he will be going over Meridian’s plans in detail, “Floor-by floor, location-by-location,” adding, “Our goal is to make sure everyone is aware that we have thought this through in detail.”

The Elephant in the Room:
The "crazies" will be wandering around Lake City's downtown.

Councilman Todd Sampson
City Councilman Todd Sampson recognized Meridans' presence in the downtown as a "big plus."  (file photo)

The last presentation at the Authority was that of the tag-team of Florida Gateway College and the Lake City Medical Center, bastions of the old Lake City and old south, and the current Republican Party.

The highlight of that presentation occurred before the meeting began. The Authority's newest member Don Kennedy tried to recruit Lake City star Dennille Decker to join the Authority board, and Authority Attorney Fred Koberlein, Jr., called out across the room to recruit former Authority Board Chairman Koby Adams to apply.

By the end of the joint FGC-LCMC presentation, packed with FGC-LCMC employees and board members, it was clear that the presentation was a smoke screen to keep Meridian out of the downtown; that FGC had not thoroughly thought out its proposal; and that neither FGC nor LCMC, needed the hospital building.

FGC President Barrett said at that meeting that the state would not pay for renovations, but would pay for a new building.

For some time, the talk on the street has been that certain Lake City Main Street business owners have been working to keep Meridian out of the downtown.

Judge Vernon Douglas
Legendary former 3d Circuit Chief Judge Vernon Douglas recognized the importance of mental health care. "... Mental health is underserved and critical.”

They have concerns about folks coming to Meridian and not leaving, wandering around Lake City, coming into restaurants looking for food or money, or taking up residence as homeless somewhere in the downtown area.

While the Observer has spoken with folks that have felt this way, no one would go on the record with those exclusionary concerns.

Last week, Authority Manager Dale Williams confirmed with your reporter that people had voiced opinions, both pro, and con, about Meridian coming into the vacated Hospital Authority property. Manager Williams said, "I advised them they need to come to the meeting to voice those opinions publically."

While the Florida Gateway College Board has been silent about the College Plans (nebulous plans so far) for the downtown campus, the Meridian board is behind and supports the Meridian proposal.

Mr. Savoie said, "The board has been regularly updated throughout this process."

Mr. Savoie said he has recently reached out to College President Barrett.

Your reporter regularly attends FGC board meetings. The College Board (another governor appointed board) generally discusses either nothing or nothing of substance and has been silent on the College’s downtown plans.

Lake City-Columbia County Leaders Speak Out About the Importance of Mental Health and In Opposition to Ignorance

FGC President Larry Barrett
FGC President Larry Barrett.   (file)

College President Larry Barrett said via email: The College recognizes the need to expand mental health services locally and nationally. As part of our Nursing programs, our students spend time in clinical experiences concentrated on behavioral health. The College recently received a proposal from Meridian, which we are reviewing to determine its viability with our proposal. We would look to partner with agencies such as Meridian to help our students and communities be educated in this health area and would like to expand this aspect of health training.” 

The legendary former 3d Circuit Chief Judge, Circuit Court Judge, and presently County Special Magistrate Vernon Douglas told your reporter: “It would be a great benefit to our community if the Hospital Authority could find a way to accommodate Meridian and the College. Mental health is underserved and critical.”

Clerk of the Court Jay Swisher
Clerk of the Court  Jay Swisher (file)

Clerk of the Court Jay Swisher, and a former LSHA board member, told your reporter: “Meridian occupying the hospital building would be a win-win for everybody.”

Lake Shore Hospital Authority Board Chairman and Chamber of Commerce Chairman Brandon Beil commented on the talk about keeping Meridian out of the hospital building because of its clientele and proximity to Main Street, “I heard it from multiple people. I don’t feel good about that.”

County Manager David Kraus told your reporter, “I think Meridian coming to Lake City is a great idea. America is in a mental health care crisis – everyone knows that.”

Befaithful Coker, appointed City Council person
Befaithful Coker (file)

Appointed City Council member Befaithful Coker said, “I am glad to see Meridian is being considered to provide its services. Columbia County faces the same dilemma facing the nation with the need to provide mental health services to an ever-growing population. The added space would be a resource to serve more of the need in our community.”

City Councilman Todd Sampson told your reporter, "My first choice would be an entity that pays taxes. Mental health is very important, and if Meridian could treat more people, that is a big plus. Meridian would be a good addition to that part of our downtown.”

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