Fishermen’s Community Hospital CEO Drew Grossman addresses the Marathon City Council on March 14 in support of the city’s special taxing district to support the hospital. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

A narrow 3-2 vote to renew the controversial Middle Keys Health Care Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU) in support of Baptist Health and Fishermen’s Community Hospital came with sharp criticisms and a request for more consistent community involvement from Baptist at the Marathon City Council’s March 14 meeting.

Initially billed as a special taxing district in support of brick-and-mortar construction for the hospital destroyed by Hurricane Irma shortly after Baptist’s purchase of the facility, the MSTU eventually pivoted to subsidize the cost of uninsured and underinsured “indigent care” in a move that drew the ire of many Marathon residents. 

With the district encompassing Marathon, Key Colony Beach and Duck Key, a non-homesteaded property assessed at $500,000 in value pays roughly $250 per year in additional taxes, with the majority of homesteaded properties paying a lower rate.

According to numbers provided by Baptist at Tuesday’s meeting, the hospital has received roughly $7.5 million of an intended $10 million from the taxing district since 2018 as of the first quarter of fiscal year 2023, plus an additional $16.2 million in philanthropy.

The hospital’s financials showed significant losses in fiscal years 2017 through 2020 with expectedly high costs of hospital construction, with Baptist still showing a net investment loss of $56.4 million since purchasing the hospital. 

However, open doors at Fishermen’s brought significant immediate profits. In fiscal year 2021, benefits from the taxing district turned a $1.2 million loss into an $872,000 operating gain. In fiscal year 2022, the hospital showed an operating gain of nearly $17.5 million, with just over $2.3 million derived from the county tax benefit. Through the first quarter of fiscal year 2023, the hospital shows an operating gain of more than $4.9 million.

Baptist officials gathered at the meeting – including hospital CEO Drew Grossman, board of trustees chair Jay Hershoff and Fishermen’s board chair Peter Chapman – extolled Baptist’s commitment to the Marathon community as it opened and expanded a rural hospital’s offerings while hundreds of similar facilities across the country face closure.

“We have been financially sound and doing well,” said Grossman. “You will see that, but it’s us paying back the bills of all this investment that we are bringing into these commitments.”

“Baptist has made a commitment to us. They saved us, and they’ve delivered health care,” said Chapman. “Marathon made a commitment to Baptist as a partner … and when we look at the partnership for health care in our community, we have to be together, and we have to look far down the road.”

Councilman Jeff Smith said he found the tax “a small price to pay” to preserve a partnership with a large healthcare system capable of providing high-quality services in a community with unique healthcare needs. 

“I think we honor our commitments,” he said. “On my tax bill, the dollar amount is less than I pay for health insurance on a monthly basis. 75% of this is actually covered by non-homesteaded properties.”

Marathon Mayor Luis Gonzalez, who voted to continue the taxing district at its 2022 review, said he found it difficult to continue charging Marathon’s taxpayers with Baptist showing such strong profits over the last two years.

“I’m caught between a rock and a hard spot,” he said. “Yes, there was a commitment, but the commitment was to renew this on a yearly basis. … You received $17 million in profit this year, and I would assume that the profit would continue.”

Both Gonzalez and Vice Mayor Robyn Still criticized a lack of community engagement from Baptist beyond scheduled speaking engagements, asking that the hospital’s medical pledge be matched by a commitment to be more involved with local events and organizations.

“The business community wants to see you,” said Gonzalez. “No matter how this vote turns out tonight, if you want to be a part of this community, you’ve got to be involved in these organizations.”

“This vote for me is about a commitment. … I’m not going to vote just because I don’t like what you’re not doing in our community,” said Still, who noted the hospital’s absence at the Marathon Seafood Festival and Marathon High School health fair. “I want to choose to improve this relationship instead of trying to prove a point. I just want you to be a good neighbor.”

“You’ve heard me say commitments made are commitments kept. I’m making a commitment tonight: You’re going to see Fishermen’s Hospital more involved in the community,” responded Hershoff. “Because it’s the right thing to do, and we need to be better neighbors.”

The council voted 3-2 to renew the taxing district for another year, with Gonzalez and councilman Kenny Matlock as the no votes.

Verdict on “extinct” church will wait another month

An expectedly contentious decision to pursue dissolution of the “extinct” New Mt. Zion Baptist Church on 42nd Street will wait until at least April as staff and council members gather more information about their options for the property.

The church is a constant bone of contention between the city and vocal activist and city critic Diane Scott, who filed civil litigation on behalf of “New Mt. Zion MB Church” for alleged trespassing in early 2020. 

A motion to dismiss the case by defendant Burnette Stewart Jones, filed in August 2020 and granted by county judge Ruth Becker in September 2020, states that the church fits the definition of an extinct church as defined by Florida Statute 617.2005. According to court records, seven subsequent motions by Scott for the case to be re-heard have all been denied.

The defendant’s motion argues, among other items, that the legal entity Scott claimed to represent does not exist, that the church lacks an ordained minister or pastor after its previous pastor passed away several years ago, and that there is “no functional religious organization, no elected governing board, no congregation or governing body that is operating a church on the property.”

Under Florida law, should the council elect to move forward and pursue dissolution, the city would reach out to a nearby church of the same denomination – possibly in Key West, Hialeah or Homestead, according to City Attorney Steve Williams – with an offer to assume the extinct church’s title and possession, after which time the recipient church could renovate, sell or transfer the property.

In addition to the anticipated berating by Scott, the council heard from Marathon resident Diane Culver, who urged the city to make sure the property was eventually incorporated into the surrounding community and adjacent Jessie Hobbs Park should it eventually be sold or transferred.

“I would hate to see the church go, but I also realize that it is not in a condition that it can be rehabbed,” she said. “If the church is not going to be taken over. … I would like to see a display or something that can honor the history of the Mount Zion Baptist Church. … A lot of residents who moved away like to come home and see familiar areas, but we like to see them in good condition.”

Smith echoed Culver’s desire to see the site’s history preserved, including the structure itself with a cornerstone dated 1949.

With more clarity needed as to whether the property fits the legal definition of an extinct church, as well as the process involved in dissolving said extinct church, the council unanimously voted to table Resolution 2023-30 until its April meeting.

In other news

  • Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay announced that his office will return $145,706.40 in surplus funds from the past year to the city. The majority of the funds are expected to be used in the city’s newly-reinstated grant program for Marathon nonprofits, which will distribute roughly $100,000 to organizations serving residents.
  • With rising safety concerns from the growing popularity of electric bicycles and scooters operating at high speeds on Marathon’s sidewalks, the council directed Williams to review existing legislation and update the council on a potential Marathon ordinance regulating the safe use of the vehicles.
  • In recognition that the Marathon City Marina and Boot Key Harbor provide one of the last collections of affordable housing for Marathon’s workforce, the council tabled Resolution 2023-31, which would have increased rates and rental fees for boat slips, mooring balls and facility usage at the marina.
  • The council unanimously approved Resolution 2023-32, providing for an approximately 42% reduction in building permit fees within the city moving forward. A retroactive reduction and refund of building permit fees paid by Marathon residents while the city building department amassed excess reserves will still hinge upon a written opinion from the Florida Ethics Commission. As four of the five council members would benefit from a retroactive refund, the opinion will establish each council member’s eligibility to vote based on whether his or her refund is “disproportionately high” as compared to other Marathon residents.
  • The council also unanimously approved a modified version of Resolution 2023-33, reaffirming boat ramp usage fees and Sombrero Beach parking fees. In a change from the original resolution, owners of second homes and investment properties in Marathon will be able to register only their personal vehicles for fee exemption, but will not be able to pass these benefits to transient renters. Williams warned that the exemption could become more complicated if an investment property is owned by an LLC or similar corporation, as is the case with many vacation rentals in Marathon.
Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.