Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news from Florida for working families since 2007

Lake Shore Hospital Authority

LSHA: After Two-and-a-Half Years, Board May Stop Bleeding the Public's Money – Agrees To Hammer Out Agreement With Meridian

Manager Williams to interview (poll?) the Board for members opinions.

Photo of Stephen M. Douglas with headline: LSHA & Meridian. For some board members, divine intervention may have helped.
Columbia County Observer graphic

More LSHA stories are here.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – After over two-and-a-half years of foot-dragging, excuses, dead-ends, propaganda, special meetings, and fear-mongering, the vacated Lake Shore Hospital Authority hospital, Shands at Lake Shore may finally have an occupier.

Last night, Tuesday, February 7, Governor Ron DeSantis's illegally constituted Lake Shore Hospital Authority Board made a decision. In the process, the board again reaffirmed the anonymous Greek saying: "Anyone who thinks all fruits ripen at the same time as strawberries knows nothing about grapes."

The Hospital Authority board, after spending around $2.5 million to keep the hospital empty, finally came together and voted to do something with the vacated hospital.

Link to Meridian proposal: Page numbers added by the ObserverThe purpose of the Authority special meeting was to discuss and decide if the board would entertain Meridian Behavioral Healthcare’s most recent proposal.

The hospital is at the eastern edge of Lake City's downtown business area.

Chairman Brandon Beil called the Authority meeting to order, and the board entertained comments from the public.

The evening's first speaker was city Councilwoman Chevella Young, in whose district the Hospital Authority resides.

Councilwoman Chevella Young:
She called college president Larry Barrett -- it made a difference

Councilwoman Chevella Young
Councilwoman Chevella Young (file photo)

Ms. Young said, “I'm here really speaking on behalf of District 10.”

She said some of her constituents favored the Meridian proposal, and others did not.

She said that during the last meeting's Meridian presentation, she heard that FGC college president Dr. Larry Barrett “called and showed an interest.”

Councilwoman Young added, “Of course, that really made a big difference in what I thought of this happening at Lake Shore…. His decision was very valuable to me. I made a phone call to Dr. Barrett. I think it's a misunderstanding or something, but it changes the whole ordeal of the presentation. He is not saying which way he is going, yea or nay. He's not saying whether he is supporting or not supporting, and to me, that's a big deal.”

Ms. Young said, "Some of the business owners did not know this was happening.”

Ms. Young concluded, “I was going with the project, but I have to say that I'm not solely, on behalf of District 10, with the project.”

Barbara Lemley: Long Time Authority Critic

Ms. Lemley got straight to the point, “I’m here in support of Meridian.”

Barbara Lemley
Barbara Lemley (file photo)

Ms. Lemley reminded the board members of the oath they took, “To be good stewards of the finances.”

She said the hospital situation had been kicked down the road for 2 1/2 years. "I know chairman Beil is ready to get it done. I think all trustees should go with this. Mental health is a major concern. We have a willing vendor to take the hospital building with no strings attached.”

Ms. Lemley spent days researching the deeds of the Authority after it was discovered that after two years, Part-Time Hospital Authority Manager Dale Williams decided to request a title search of the property. This was never announced at any meeting of the Authority. Ms. Lemley asked Manager Williams for an explanation of the reverter.

The 1955 deed from the Masonic Lodge to what eventually became the Lake Shore Hospital Authority contained a reverter.

Manager Williams said, “The original 1955 deed from the lodge Masonic Lodge… We are way too early to say what is says or doesn’t say.”

Ms. Lemley's research revealed that the visitor parking lot was the only Masonic property in which the reverter played a part. This appears to be something that would be easily cured between the Authority and the Masons.

Glenel BowdenFormer City Councilman Glenel Bowden addressed the board, “I didn't want to come up and add my voice as one to oppose the location of Meridian at Lake Shore property. Not because I'm opposed to mental health services. I just think it's a bad location… I was not convinced at the last meeting that they are necessarily going to be a good steward. I don't see where it will add any value to the immediate neighborhood.”

Mr. Bowden added, “I was surprised that there were business owners downtown that talk in private -- they don't think it's a good idea -- but they are not willing to come down here and voice their opinion. That's kind of concerning to me.”

Mr. Bowden said, “I am personally opposed to the location of the facility, not Meridian services.”

Vanessa George, a resident of District 10, said, "Most of the people that are for Meridian don't live in the community. They're not there with the power plants, the railroad tracks, the junkyard. We already have increasing crime, so you are going to bring this element to the community?”

Ms. George opined, “They're going to kill the business community that you are trying to get to thrive downtown. You have a lot of issues that you're not taking into account.”

Ms. George said that with Meridian there, "people will not feel comfortable walking around the lake. You are going to destroy the downtown... That's what's going to happen with Meridian. It's needed, but not for this community."

Worried about "stigma"
Chris Candler, Brew Master & Downtown Business Owner

Mr. Chris Candler, an owner of the bar called Halpatter Brewing in Lake City's downtown, came to the microphone.

Brewmaster Chris Candler
Brewmaster Chris Candler, worried about "stigma." Columbia County Observer photo

Mr. Candler said he was “in no way opposed to mental health and mental health facilities…I feel like it is an absolute need in our community.”

Mr. Candler said he opposes the project "simply because of the location."

“We have a very burgeoning central business district. We have a lot of projects. We have a lot of businesses. We have festivals that are coming down. We have family movie nights.”

Mr. Candler said Meridian could run a perfect facility, but the “problem is going to come in stigma. There is going to be a stigma associated with that. Stigma is real. Perception is reality. My worry is by placing a facility of this type in the downtown community, that stigma may stymie that potential.”

Mr. Candler did not say how people coming from far and wide to visit his brewery would know that on the edge of the downtown Meridian had a location. Mr. Candler also did not explain how many people, other than his friends, knew what Meridian was.

Mr. Candler wanted to set benchmarks for Meridian and have its takeover of the hospital building considered like an “economic development project." It wasn’t clear how much he wanted the Authority to get into Meridian’s business.

Mr. Candler's lease and subsequent purchase of his downtown building, now a successful business, in a sweetheart deal with the infamous Columbia County 5 had none of the economic development benchmarks he mentioned to the Authority board.

Chairman Brandon Beil:
He can’t vote, but he does have an opinion

Chairman Beil opined that “tonight's meeting really needs to be focused on -- are we moving forward with this and in what manner are we going to move forward with this.”

Mr. Beil set the parameter for the rest of the meeting, “We move on to new business, the discussion and possible action, the donation of the Lake Shore hospital building to Meridian behavioral healthcare.”

Don Kennedy, Bd Member & Former Public Defender Investigator: “A Decision Has To Be Made”

Don KennedyMr. Kennedy said, ‘I've been on this board 14 months. I think this board has had more special meetings in the 14 months than in the history of the board. I, too, am tired of kicking the can down the road. A decision has to be made.

Mr. Kennedy said he walked the streets of District 10 and the downtown, talking to people and getting their opinions. Mr. Kennedy said he also has spoken with the County and City officials.

Mr. Kennedy said, “I have found yet anyone who is opposed to the concept that Meridian has proposed… I would like to hear from my colleagues to see what they have talked to, who they have talked to, and what input they have had… I would like to hear from my colleagues before I make any type of motion.”

Board Member Stephen M. Douglas, His Challenge:
Doing the right thing or bending to pressure?

Stephen Douglas
Stephen Douglas: his decision was not easy.

Mr. Douglas said, “I have had a myriad of phone calls over the last two weeks. I've talked to everyone I can think of until I am blue in the face… if I could give you a summary of what I heard, the summary is the same thing. We have a location problem…."

Mr. Douglas continued, “I have lived within a stone's throw of Meridian over in Gainesville. I took my dog to the park next to Meridian not less than 70 some odd times. I parked in the Meridian parking lot, having no idea that I was parked next to Meridian's headquarters. I didn't know.”

Mr. Douglas mentioned his Gainesville tour of the Meridian campus. "A lot of the concerns that I hear, I don't know that they are necessarily founded. The only concern that I continually hear that does give me pause is the stigma. The stigma attached to this is a very -- it cannot be discounted."

Mr. Douglas mentioned he had received many text messages (they are public records) about the Meridian location.

Mr. Douglas said the stigma was attached in his mind “until I went and educated myself.”

Mr. Douglas wondered how he could convey his experience "on a mass scale."

Board Member Lory Chancy:
“We need to accept things that are needed.”

Board member Lory ChancyMs. Chancy said, “I understand the stigma. I can remember in the 1950s -- if there was any hospital to do with psychiatric patients, it was put miles and miles away from anything. I think we've grown in our understanding of the fact that people need help. Unfortunately, it took the Vietnam War for us to really get hot to trot on it. I would rather see a good psychiatric hospital, even if it's in the middle of downtown Lake City than I would just an open field because that's what we will have.”

Ms. Chancy said that she believed the Meridian facility would enhance the downtown area by increasing the workforce in the downtown.

Meridian is not actually in the downtown, but on the edge.

“As a wife and mother, I understand the fears. But I cannot live in fear any more than any of you can. We need to accept things that are needed.”

Chairman Beil Weighs In

Brandon Beil
Chairman Beil spent most of the evening listening.

Chairman Beil weighed in. He said he heard many of the same concerns that others have heard. “I have probably had more positive feedback from members of the community than I've had negative.”

Mr. Beil also mentioned his tour of the Gainesville facility, saying that when he went to Meridian, the stigma was in his mind. He said that even with the methadone dispensary, Meridian was a very clean and pleasant campus. "I hate to admit that I was shocked at that."

Beil mentioned that the Authority is spending $50,000 a month to maintain the vacated hospital. Unless they work out an arrangement with Meridian, the Authority will continue to spend $50,000 a month and then spend $3 million or more to demolish the hospital. “We are going to have to use taxpayer dollars to do that. It is our responsibility to manage those taxpayer dollars wisely."

The last page of the updated Meridian proposal.

Board Member Kennedy Heard Enough

Mr. Kennedy mentioned that "stigma" needs to be overcome. He referred the board to the last page and the last paragraph of the Meridian proposal, which reads, "We ask for the opportunity to sit down and develop a mutually agreeable and supportive agreement that collectively will provide for the citizens of Columbia County for the foreseeable future."

Mr. Kennedy motioned for the Authority Staff to sit down with Meridian to "develop a mutually agreeable and supportive agreement that collectively will provide for the citizens of Columbia County for the foreseeable future."

Mr. Kennedy also directed Manager Williams to meet with the Board members and find out what they wanted.

The motion passed 3-0. The Chairman does not vote.

Correction: fixed date from Feb. 23 to Feb. 7 (par. 2)

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