On March 9, the Marathon City Council directed staff to bring two ordinances back for the April meeting — one in support of the special taxing district in support of Fishermen’s Hospital, and one in opposition. 

Councilman Dan Zieg added the taxing district as a discussion item, but there was no corresponding ordinance listed on the agenda at the Tuesday meeting. He said the council had asked for a more detailed accounting last year, when it was time to renew support for the taxing district that it has yet to receive, and also that it has no updated information for this year. 

“We were promised a full accounting from the hospital by May of 2020 and that report is still absent and evidently has not come forward on any level. We reminded the hospital representatives that this has to be reviewed on an annual basis. It’s been on the agenda for two weeks without response from Baptist,” Zieg said, adding that the Middle Keys has done much to support the hospital not only through taxes, but also via private donations to the hospital foundation. “We need to reconsider withdrawing the tax district.”

The hospital system did not have representation at the March 9 meeting. And the only documentation in the council’s agenda packet was the same information from last year, a summary of hospital costs for fiscal year 2019, and the first quarter of 2020, to care for the uninsured and underinsured in the Middle Keys. 

Jay Hershoff is the chairman of the Baptist Health South Florida board of directors and a Tavernier resident. He said no one from the city told him the item was up for discussion. 

“Had anybody called to remind us, or told us to be there, we would have been there to answer any questions. We will definitely be at the next meeting with all the answers because we have them,” Hershoff said. 

The taxing district was conceived in 2018 when it was clear that Fishermen’s Community Hospital was completely destroyed by Hurricane Irma and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. Baptist Health South Florida, the parent company, estimated it would cost $40 million. The City of Marathon officially supported the taxing district, which was then created by Monroe County. 

Every year, the county cuts a check to Baptist — not for the cost of the rebuild, because that would have required a voter referendum, but the cost of treating the Middle Keys’ underinsured and uninsured — via the special taxing district. The district was created by the Marathon City Council and Monroe County for properties between MM 47 and MM 63, which includes Marathon, Key Colony Beach and Duck Key. The county said the goal was to raise about $10 million over 10 years.

In FY 2019 Baptist submitted a bill for $1.8 million. In FY 2020, the estimated costs are $1.4 million. According to Monroe County, $2.25 million has been paid to Baptist Health from the Middle Keys Health Care taxing district since its inception.

The numbers for FY 2020 were obtained by the Keys Weekly Newspaper by calling the Monroe County Clerk of the Court and the Monroe County Department of Finance. In addition to the $2.25 million in taxes, the Fishermen’s Community Hospital Foundation, its charitable arm, raised more than $15 million in private donations, according to the foundation’s chairman, Mike Leonard. The foundation’s capital campaign for the construction of the new hospital is closed. They are currently raising funds for local nursing scholarships and future expansion in Marathon – which may include a medical arts building. 

Whether or not Marathon City Council decides to support another year of the taxing district will be determined at council meeting on Tuesday, April 13. Then, the council will also have to call a special meeting for the second reading of the ordinance in order to ratify it before May 1, the well-established and well-publicized start of next year’s tax collection.

Fishermen’s Community Hospital continues to operate a temporary facility on the Marathon campus while the new hospital is under construction. The new hospital is set for a soft opening on July 1. The date is significant as the four-year anniversary of Baptist Health South Florida acquiring the brick-and-mortar facility from the former community foundation.

“The purpose of the special taxing district was for the construction of the hospital,” said Marathon Councilman Mark Senmartin. “Most people understand the bait and switch to indigent care (for uninsured and underinsured medical costs) was to move monies around. Bottom line, the hospital is near completion and they’ve gotten a decent chunk of money from Marathon, Monroe County and pledged privately. They’ve even acquired the county land next door to the hospital where the library is now. At this point we’ve fulfilled our obligation.”

Hershoff said Baptist has made a significant investment in the Middle Keys even though the hospital continues to lose money to this day. He said Baptist support has reached $55 million. In 2018, the Keys Weekly reported that Baptist acquired $24 million in debt when it purchased the hospital from the community, ending a management lease with a company called Quorum. That included the cost of renting the “mash” tent hospital, then acquiring the hard-sided temporary hospital costing $3 million, a $5.8 million bank mortgage and $4.1 million to vendors. In 2018, Baptist said the hospital was losing about $1 million a month. 

“Even when the doors to the new hospital open, we are not going to come up to speed right away. We might not need the taxing district in the future, but right now our losses continue,” said Hershoff. 

Mayor Luis Gonzalez and Councilmen John Bartus and Steve Cook urged patience. All three pointed to the pandemic and recent change in leadership for Fishermen’s Hospital, as well as Mariner’s Hospital in Tavernier, now under the guidance of Drew Grossman since the retirement of Rick Freeburg. 

“I share the frustration that we were not provided the financials we wanted to see, but I would like to give (Baptist) the benefit of the doubt,” said Bartus.

In addition, the council directed staff to ask Baptist for the financials at least two week prior to the April meeting in order to have time to review them. 

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Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.