(Editor’s note: Information about the City of Independence’s plans to convert a portion of Mercy Hospital into municipal offices were unveiled in the Nov. 26 issue of the Montgomery County Chronicle as well as in an earlier post on this website.)
BY ANDY TAYLOR
INDEPENDENCE — “Betrayal” was a word frequently used by more than one dozen Independence residents who spoke at last Tuesday’s special Independence City Commission meeting in which plans for the City of Independence’s occupation of the now-closed Mercy Hospital were disclosed publicly for the first time.
Not only did residents protest plans by city staff to relocate existing city offices into the vacated hospital but many also openly sought the resignation of city manager Micky Webb.
At the end of the two-hour meeting, commissioners voted 2-1 to proceed with negotiations with Mercy Health System concerning the donation of Mercy Hospital to the City of Independence.
Commissioners Fred Meier and Gary Hogsett voted in favor of the motion while Mayor Leonhard Caflisch voted against the measure.
Following the meeting, Caflisch chose not to discuss his dissenting vote on the matter, saying he wished to have more time to digest the information that was presented at the meeting.
Commissioners made the decision after conferring with attorneys for 20 minutes in executive session, which is closed to the press and public. Mercy Health System had imposed a Nov. 30 deadline for the City of Independence to make a decision on whether to accept or reject the donation of the hospital property.
Should the City of Independence not continue its plans to acquire the hospital property, Mercy Hospital has indicated it would demolish the entire structure.
Prior to the vote and the numerous pleas and questions from local residents, commissioners heard an overview of the plans to convert a portion of Mercy Hospital into municipal offices. In addition to converting a portion of the hospital into city offices, city staff had devised a plan to erect a 19,000-square-foot addition to serve as vehicle bays for the City’s firetrucks, ambulance fleet, and other vital heavy equipment that require enclosed storage. That vehicle facility would be located where the older portions of the hospital, including the often-called “round tower” and the original hospital building now stand. Mercy Hospital has indicated it would demolish those two older portions of the hospital.
The estimated cost to remodel the hospital portion and erect the vehicle storage facility would be between $4.5 million to $5 million, said city manager Micky Webb. He added that the cost to erect a new municipal office complex would be between $8 million to $10 million.
Frustration was evident in the voices of the residents who spoke after Webb presented the plan overview. Architect Sean Clapp of Heckman & Associates also spoke for about 30 minutes about the conversion plans.
Phillip Oyler of Independence accused the city commission and city staff of “misleading the public in the last few weeks . . . not to get a healthcare facility but to get an office for city employees.”
Oyler suggested that the commission create a citizen advisory board that would be used to create a healthcare solution for Independence. He also suggested the development of a regional healthcare cooperative as a way generate sustainable medical activity in the Independence community.
Rusty Baker, fire chief, admitted that the hospital-turned-city office was “not the perfect fix” but would go far into rectifying the problems now experienced at the existing City Hall.
“The question is if you are going to spend the money to rectify
the things that you have going on in City Hall or if you are going to spend money on a hospital, then where will it do the most good,” said Baker. “That’s the decision you have to make.”
Baker also spoke about the problems of storing existing firetrucks outdoors because of the lack of space at the existing City Hall. He also said the height constraints of the existing firetruck bays at the City Hall require the City of Independence to special order new or pre-owned firetrucks with a shorter truck frame.
Debbie Miller of Independence provided the most pointed criticism of the conversion plans.
“Why does a community, with its overwhelming financial challenge need a gargantuan Taj Mahal City Hall?” she asked.
Miller also suggested why the commission or city staff had not considered the recommendations of a 2012 feasibility study that evaluated the existing space within City Hall.
Miller also directed criticism toward Webb, who she said sought a local architect to prepare the conversion plans without proper authorization from the city commission. Miller told the commission that Webb should be removed from his position.
Terry Hatfield, a retired Independence pastor, compared the loss of Mercy Hospital to the loss of a loved one. The grieving process after the loss of a loved one requires time to overcome. The commission should not rush through the grieving process with what appears to be a hastily-made plan for relocating City Hall to the former Mercy Hospital.
“In the same way you don’t rush a person with grief, you shouldn’t rush a community through grief,” said Hatfield. “What’s the rush? Why can’t we save it (the hospital) for further medical use?”
Hatfield also said he felt local residents have lost their collective confidence in the city commission and city staff with the release of the municipal office plan.
Don Moore of Independence said he felt “betrayed” when he heard the news of the plans to convert the hospital into city office.
“When I heard the news, there is something that went from my heart to the bottom of my feet,” said Moore. “Just in last month, we had a city manager that, in my mind, no doubt had a plan to make this happen.”
Moore said the commission’s top priority is to create a plan whereby the now-closed Mercy Hospital can be used by some other medical provider to provide healthcare for the community.
Moore also told commissioners that Webb should removed from his position.
Louis Ysusi of Independence said the lack of transparency on the part of city commissioners has lost the “trust and confidence of the people who elected you.”
“This idea to make city offices out of Mercy Hospital came out of nowhere,” he said. “And because all of this is discussed away from the public, it causes the public to question this process.”
Mayor Leonhard Caflisch did not provide many details of the process by which city staff prepare an architectural study concerning the conversion of Mercy Hospital into municipal offices. However, he said the situations that befell the commission where an ongoing set of circumstances stemming from Mercy Hospital’s closure in October.
“One year ago, we never thought in our wildest imaginations that we would be put in this situation that we now face,” Caflisch said of the absence of hospital care in the Independence community.
“The city manager has tried to present an idea of ‘what if’,” said Caflisch. “As a city commission, this is still a ‘what if’ option.”
With prodding from commissioner Fred Meier, Caflisch directed residents to keep their comments focused on the conversion plans while staying away from personnel matters and personalities — an obvious attempt to curtailing the public’s open criticism of Webb. That brought several jeers of “no, no, no” from the more than 100 people who packed into the Independence Civic Center to view the meeting.
Also at the meeting, attorney Tim Emert, who was present due to the absence of city attorney Jeff Chubb, nodded in head in affirmation when the commission was asked if Mercy Health System was stipulating how the former hospital could be used by the City of Independence. At the request of Emert, commissioners chose not discuss details of the negotiations publicly, saying they were bound by confidentiality agreements to prohibit the open discussion of their negotiations with Mercy Health System.