The successful application, filed in spring 2006, to secure a Georgia Department of Community Affairs redevelopment fund grant to renovate the former Walker County Health Department building in Rossville was specific — very specific.
Signed by then-commissioner Bebe Heiskell, that application stated the grant would be used to establish a primary health care clinic that would provide pediatric, family practice and dental services to all individuals in Walker and surrounding counties, regardless of their ability to pay.
Terms of the agreement stipulate that to receive a $465,923 Redevelopment Fund grant, the county would provide $202,908 of services — not cash — and the Georgia Baptist Health Care Ministry Foundation would dedicate $231,249 toward Primary Health Care Centers’ first year operating costs.
The grant was awarded, the building was restored and non-profit PHC was granted a renewable lease at the rate of $1-per-year through 2011.
The partnership between PHC and Walker County continued unchanged until after Heiskell was defeated in the November 2016 general election.
Since its founding in Trenton 28 years ago, Primary Health Care Centers has grown from that one Dade County office, to now operating stand-alone clinics in Walker, Polk, Chattooga and Catoosa counties. The Rossville locations serve more than 4,000 patients, with many making multiple visits — it is their primary care facility — and roughly 57 percent of those are either uninsured or have Medicaid.
In addition, PHC has partnered with local public schools to staff clinics at Tiger Creek Elementary, near Ringgold, and Gilbert Elementary, near LaFayette. The importance of having onsite health care provided to students resulted last week in PHC receiving the Nonprofit of the Year Award for 2017 from the Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce and, this week, it being nominated for the Large Business Partner of the Year Award from the Walker County School System B.E.A.T. program.
Since taking office in 2017, Commissioner Shannon Whitfield proposed increasing that $1 annual rent to a monthly charge of $8,000. After unsuccessful negotiations, the commissioner notified PHC that they need to vacate the Rossville clinic, located on Suggs Street, on or before March 31, 2018.
PHC for several years has leased a county-owned building in LaFayette for its administrative offices. But after talks with the commissioner were fruitless, the PHC board of trustees signed a one-year lease with Walker County School System. This new lease allows relocating the clinic and administrative offices to the now-vacant Fairview Elementary School.
Signed in February, the new lease went into effect on March 1 and will have PHC pay $2,500 per month, $30,000 per year, to the school system.
Officials with PHC have said work to prepare the new location is underway. When the building will be ready to serve patients has not been determined and it unclear when the current locations will be vacated.
There have been informal discussions about continued use as specified and the commissioner said he is committed to honoring the terms of the grant, but after his public meeting last Thursday evening, he said he has neither spoken in recent days with PHC officials nor with the Department of Community Affairs.
County spokesman Joe Legge said that aside from various entities that have expressed interest in using the facility on Suggs Street, other options are open for the county both in Rossville and LaFayette.
“We are in a holding pattern until PHC moves out by the end of the month,” he said.
Until the clinic is vacant, he said it is difficult to show the property to potential renters.
And Whitfield repeated that the Rossville clinic will be used to provide a service or services to the citizens of Walker County.
But there are strings attached to use of the Suggs Street property because of the grant having been made for a specific purpose.
As it stands, the county will soon have two empty buildings and could face a financial liability that could affect more than health care. That is because if Department of Community Affairs demands repayment, the state could freeze any county application or use of CDBG funds until the issue is resolved.
The 20-year Community Development Block Grant Redevelopment Grant awarded in January 2007 for renovation of the abandoned Rossville Health Department was made with the following note regarding special conditions for the building’s continued use:
“DCA expects facilities constructed or improved in whole or in part with CDBG funds are to be used for the approved use throughout the life of the facility.
“DCA should be contacted immediately if there is a proposed change in use or beneficiaries.
“Prior to the DCA consideration of the request, the local government must hold a public hearing to afford affected citizens an opportunity to comment on the proposed change.
“DCA will determine if in fact the new use is an eligible and appropriate activity.
“DCA will generally require and the recipient agrees to the repayment of grant funds to the State if the facility is converted to an ineligible use as determined by DCA. The repayment will be based on a 20-year straight-line depreciation, except 100 percent repayment of grant funds will be required to be repaid during the first five years after the grant closeout date.
“Local governments that violate the agreement and fail to respond to a DCA finding with regard to an inappropriate change of use of a facility will be sanctioned and face penalties up to and including loss of their CDBG eligibility. Such uses include any leases or subleases of the facility.”
Because the grant’s original purpose was to provide medical and dental care for a community having a high percentage of individuals living at or below the poverty level, the state could determine that the county must continue to provide such services at the 1430 Suggs Street location.
As Whitfield was quoted in the Chattanooga newspaper, “So stay tuned and we should have some announcements forthcoming.”