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AG's office hears arguments in Floyd and Atrium merger as review completion nears

One more checkbox has been filled in concerning the merger of Floyd health care system and Atrium Health with a public hearing conducted at the Forum on Friday.

The overall process also includes a comprehensive review of the merger and with the hearing concluded, the Office of the Attorney General of Georgia has 30 days to issue a final ruling regarding the merger.

“We have spent a lot of time crafting the agreements that will bring our two organizations together,” Kurt Stuenkel, Floyd president and CEO, said in a press release. “Our boards have chosen a great partner in Atrium Health, and I feel certain that the benefits are clearly evident and that within the next 30 days we will receive the approval that we desire.”

The panel heard comments, most of which were in favor of the merger and a release by Floyd Medical Center stated there were 65 accompanying letters in support.

The board of directors of the Hospital Authority of Floyd County voted to approve a membership substitution, essentially a merger between two healthcare entities, during a called meeting in March.

The proposed merger, once executed, establishes Atrium Health Georgia Inc., a subsidiary of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority, as the sole member of Floyd Healthcare Management Inc.

The board also approved the restatement of the lease agreement between the Hospital Authority of Floyd County, the owner of the Floyd Medical Center building and property, and Floyd Healthcare Inc.

The alliance, which is likely the largest business deal in Floyd County history, will likely pump in excess of $650 million dollars into the Floyd system over the next 11 years.

Because the Floyd County and Polk County hospitals are not-for-profits, they must demonstrate to the state how the deal benefits the communities they serve, including providing safeguards for both public interest and financial security.

Another of Floyd’s hospitals, Cherokee Medical Center in Alabama, does not have to submit a proposal. Alabama does not have the same set of regulatory requirements.

One purpose of the merger is allow Floyd tap into Atrium’s larger market share and benefit from their purchasing power as well as clinical expertise.

The merger will also close out a debt to the county. Floyd County backed $127.5 million in bonds for expansion and upgrades at the hospital. As part of the deal Atrium will pay off those bonds.

With that loan payoff, the county will retain one seat on the 18-member Floyd Healthcare Management as well as a seat on the seven-member Hospital Authority of Floyd County board.

However, it will lose a second seat on the Floyd Healthcare Management Inc. board. That second seat came about as part of a 2003 deal when the county originally agreed to back bonds by Floyd Medical Center. Once the debt is no longer guaranteed by the county government, they are no longer guaranteed that second seat at the table.

As part of the merger, the Floyd Healthcare Management board will get two new members from Atrium.

Floyd County Schools wraps up Viking Exploration camp

Kids from Floyd County Schools, Rome City Schools and area private schools got to come together over the past week and participate in a special gifted enrichment program at Berry College.

The Viking Exploration camp is a partnership between FCS and Berry College.

“It was a collaboration to bring enrichment activities to the gifted and talented students of Floyd County, Rome City and private schools, such as St. Mary’s,” Lori Frederick said.

Frederick, along with Allison Espy, is one of the organizers of the program, which took place during the first week of June from 8 a.m. to noon.

The students had a wide variety of classes to choose from, such as Chess Masters, where kids learn all about the game and get to ultimately compete in a chess tournament at the end of the week, and Improv, where kids learn about the unpredictable ad-lib form of theater performance.

“There were no opportunities for enrichment for these gifted-identified children and we wanted to offer something for them,” Espy said. “We try and appeal to a variety of audiences and interests.”

Using the Berry campus, the kids also get to learn about the history of the Mount Berry area through the Berry Unplugged program. In the class, kids experience games, crafts, story making, baking, and hiking while focusing on the Appalachian culture found here in Georgia. Some of the examples include friendship bracelets, candle making, scavenger hunts etc.

One of the most exciting classes the kids look forward to is Orienteering, where students learn how to follow compasses, read maps, geocaching, etc.

Frederick described the class as “swashbuckling” since you often see the kids run around with plastic swords and reading “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Berry students staff the BOLD program, or Berry College Outdoor Leadership course. In the class, kids learn about teamwork and leadership skills while also maneuvering obstacle courses or low ropes course elements.

“It emphasizes leadership, communication and cooperation skills,” Frederick said.

High school honors students also get service hours by working as counselors in the program.

Georgia House holding hearings concerning spike in metro-Atlanta crimes

ATLANTA — The double-barreled ugliness that was 2020 in America is reverberating in 2021 in a crime wave that has hit cities across the country, including Atlanta.

In Georgia, the rise in violent crime sparked by the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis is being felt primarily in the metro region.

But the increase in crime is raising alarms at the Georgia Capitol to the point that a committee in the state House of Representatives has begun holding hearings to try to identify the causes of what’s happening and how the state might help fix it.

“Atlanta has been the engine that runs Georgia,” Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, said late last month during the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee’s initial hearing. “We cannot let this deteriorate.”

“We have a crime wave in Atlanta, a battle that we’re losing,” added House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who tasked the committee to look into the issue. “The only way we’re going to win it is to work together.”

The statistics are grim. Homicides in metro Atlanta are up by 60% so far this year over 2020.

Statewide, there were 125,873 “crimes against persons” — including death investigations, assaults and robberies — during the first 10 months of the current fiscal year, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. That’s slightly higher than the 125,680 such crimes reported during all of fiscal 2020.

The increase in the broad category of assaults, robberies, kidnapping and human trafficking was particularly dramatic, 19,746 through the first 10 months of fiscal 2021 compared to 15,809 for all of the last fiscal year.

Dean Dabney, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University, said COVID-19 is partly to blame for the crime wave.

While domestic violence didn’t rise significantly during the pandemic, according to national research, street crimes did, Dabney said.

“It was people on the streets, gangs, drugs, those kinds of dynamics,” he said.

Dabney said that trend was particularly pronounced in Georgia. As one of the first states to reopen its economy, Georgia drew people from other states anxious to escape mandatory lockdowns, he said.

He suggested the shutdown of courts during the pandemic also has contributed to higher crime by delaying prosecutions, which left accused criminals on the streets.

But Dabney said the fallout from the deaths last year of Floyd and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta has played a larger role in the crime wave than COVID-19 because of the impact the protests have had on police officers.

“There’s been a slight drop in community willingness to engage with police,” he said. “But more of it is due to police not feeling comfortable with the rules of engagement.”

Several members of the House committee said much the same thing during the panel’s first hearing.

“There’s been a tidal wave that’s touched down on law enforcement,” said committee Chairman J Collins, R-Villa Rica. “Law enforcement (officers) are scared to do their jobs.”

While the General Assembly is in the business of passing laws, Ralston said new legislation is not going to fix the problem.

“I’m not sure we need new laws,” he said. “We need a new commitment to enforce the laws we have. … We’re not apprehending people for committing crimes, and those we do we’re not bringing to justice.”

Instead of legislation, the state is dedicating money and personnel to fighting the crime wave. Gov. Brian Kemp has committed up to $5 million of the Governor’s Emergency Fund to support state efforts to bring crime in Atlanta under control.

“The state has some assets that can be of help, the state patrol, GBI, the Department of Natural Resources and others,” Ralston said. “I want to see a unified effort to deal with a serious problem.”

But the brunt of combating Atlanta’s crime wave falls on the city. Rodney Bryant, Atlanta’s new police chief, announced a plan June 7 to restructure the Atlanta Police Department by creating a new domestic violence team, centralizing its investigative unit and expanding its gun assault unit.

“The state can only do so much,” Kemp said. “I’m glad the APD is stepping up. We’ve needed that kind of leadership in the city.”

Dabney said the police presence needs to increase if Atlanta and other cities are to come to grips with the crime wave.

“Crime rates dropped precipitously over the last decade due in part to a proactive policy … as opposed to waiting for 911 calls and going there in a reactive manner,” he said. “That came to a screeching halt last summer.”

But in the current atmosphere, Dabney said police have to be careful in how they step up their presence.

“You can’t just go back to the old way of aggressive policing. The community does not like that,” he said. “You need to revisit the tenets of community policing. … You have to do reform and you have to do proactive.”

Democrats on the House committee say they hope Republicans won’t use the hearing to win votes by stirring up fears of crime.

“If it’s political theater, I’m not interested,” said Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “I’m interested in solutions.”

Collins said the committee’s mission is serious.

“There’s going to be politics in this,” he said. “(But) this committee wants to dig down and look at the facts.”

Serenity Davis, a student at Model Elementary School

Fate of fulltime federal judgeship in Rome depends on Biden appointment

The lack of a full-time judge on the federal bench for the Northern District of Georgia Rome Division is something attorneys across the region hope will be resolved when the Biden administration fills two vacancies in the district.

Longtime U.S. District Court Judge Harold L. Murphy, who was appointed to the post in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, decided to take senior judge status in 2017 and still hears a limited number of cases in Rome.

The Biden administration is shopping around to fill two of the vacancies on the Northern District bench but both nominations are expected to be Atlanta-based judgeships.

At this point cases filed in the Rome division of the Northern District are being heard by other judges in the district on a rotating basis.

Occasionally those judges come to the courthouse in Rome, but as often as not hearings and trials are being held in Atlanta, which presents logistical issues for some attorneys who live in the extreme northern half of the district, Calhoun, LaFayette, Ringgold and Dalton for example.

Judge Steve Jones, Judge Mark Cohen and Judge William Ray II are among the judges who have made the trip to Rome to preside over some of the local cases.

Judge Ray confirmed to the Rome News-Tribune that his appointment to the bench in 2018 by President Trump was directly related to the vacancy created by Judge Murphy deciding to take senior status. The judge said he would be trying a case in Rome later this month and enjoyed making the trip to Rome from time to time.

One of the two attorneys who spoke to the Rome News on the condition of anonymity explained another issue with not having a resident judge is that juries are supposed to be picked from the surrounding area. If venue in any given case is changed to Atlanta, then the jury would be chosen from communities closer to Atlanta.

At this point it’s in the hands of our U.S. senators and the White House and nobody knows what will come of it.

Representatives of Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff aided in the collection of potential candidates for the position, however a spokesman for Sen. Ossoff said he had no idea when appointments might be forthcoming.

A committee headed by former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears and Judge Herbert Phipps, retired from the Georgia Court of Appeals, has been charged with heading the Warnock and Ossoff joint Federal Nominations Advisory Commission.

They are responsible for submitting nominees to fill the seats of now Judge Tom Thrash Jr. and Judge Amy Totenberg, both of whom have also taken senior status.

Judge Murphy, who is in his 90s, does have two full-time law clerks in the Rome Federal Building as well as his Clerk of Court Sam Johnston. Johnston often has to make the drive to Atlanta for cases which in theory should be held in Rome.

President Biden has been able to get three U.S. District Court appointments through confirmation from the Senate in this first five months of his presidency.

Julien Xavier Neals and Zahid Quraishi have been confirmed to seats on the U.S. District Court in New Jersey, while Regina Rodriguez won Senate approval for a District Court post in Colorado.

Six other Biden appointments to federal district court seats are awaiting a vote by the Senate Judiciary committee, while four others are still awaiting hearings.