Cookeville City Council voted 4-0 to pass the new fiscal year budget for Cookeville Regional Medical Center on first reading.
The vote came after a tough discussion among council members concerning issues at the medical center.
“If we don’t vote on the budget and we don’t pass it, we’re stalling ourselves in having that conversation,” Vice Mayor Laurin Wheaton said. “These are conversations that, again, can be had in a civilized adult manner without essentially holding the budget hostage. And I don’t want to use that word in that phrase, but we’re down to the wire now. And I feel like, again, yes, there are issues that we need to discuss with the hospital. And I know we can work together and move forward with having those discussions and we can gain the trust back of the community.”
“We’ve got to pass the budget first.”
Mayor Ricky Shelton, who serves as CRMC’s Chief Strategy Officer, abstained from the vote.
“To uphold that oath and to protect the safety, health and general welfare of the city and our citizens, I implore you to cast your vote for this budget,” Shelton said. “Please uphold the oath you swore to because there’s way more at stake here. The health care of our region and the lives of its citizens.”
Council Member Charles Womack proposed an amendment to the budget ordinance making the budget’s passing contingent on CRMC supplying the salary numbers of its seven chief officers. That includes the chief executive officer, the chief operating officer, the chief information officer, the chief strategy officer, the chief legal officer, the chief financial officer and the chief nursing officer. Council Member Mark Miller seconded the motion.
City Attorney Dan Rader said the proposed amendment, which ultimately failed by a 2-2 vote, again moved the council into operational issues.
“Your fiduciary duty is to appoint a trustee that you trust to manage the hospital correctly and then if the hospital has revenue problems, then you can remove one or more of all the trustees and appoint new trustees that do management differently the way you would like to have it done,” Rader said. “The management operation of the hospital that’s vested in the board of trustees that you appoint.”
Rader said there’s no difference between the way the Cookeville Regional operates and the way City Manager James Mills runs the city. The council appoints the Board of Trustees to run the hospital just as Mills is hired to run city operations. If the council does not like Mills’ work, they can fire him.
“Under the legalities of the private act, the city council does not own and operate and manage the hospital,” Rader said. “You know, I think I said this many months ago, if the city council today voted to fire somebody at the hospital, the city council does not have the authority to do that. It’s like the county commission doesn’t have the authority to fire somebody who works for the school system.”
But Womack continued to question operational issues including the contract of Dr. Lewis Wilson, who refused a new contract with CRMC. Womack called his leaving a “travesty.”
Council Member Mark Miller said he felt “stonewalled” when he asked questions of the hospital administration.
“I think there are issues at the top of the leadership at Cookeville Regional,” Miller said. “Since we’ve been on the council, we’ve had to terminate service for people in Clay County. We’ve had a $4.2 million dollar kickback lawsuit that (CRMC) had to pay to the Department of Justice. Currently, we’re possibly going to lose a really good cardio surgeon, two of them because of failed attempts to create a nice contract to keep those cardiac surgeons here. So we’re cutting services to our community.”
Miller also alluded that the city has gained more fiduciary oversight because of the retirement fund issue surrounding former Cookeville General employees. Both City Manager James Mills and Finance Director Brenda Imel said no one locally did anything wrong, but rather the issues lies with the state and its procedures.
Though he said he concerns about the Medical Center’s operations, Council Member Eric Walker said the council should not hijack the budget process as a way to get answers.
“I think there does need to be a discussion beyond this between the council, the board of trustees and administration about what what role the administration plays and how they can report on to the council what what their position in the hospital is, how how would that expense is, what what we see for that facility to get managed. And I think that’s an important thing,” Walker said. “Just as anyone would want to understand how the administration manages any asset that they have or indeed anyone is managing their assets.”