BY ANDY TAYLOR
INDEPENDENCE — The Independence community’s conversation about the changing state of local healthcare shifted this week when city manager Micky Webb and Mercy Hospital interim chief executive officer Kim Day announced a proposal to convert a portion of Mercy Hospital into municipal offices.
The proposal calls for Mercy Hospital to donate the newest portions of Mercy Hospital, including the 1995 addition that contained the bulk of the hospital rooms, to the City of Independence. Mercy will be responsible for demolishing the two oldest portions of the hospital, including the often-called “round tower” portion. Upon the footprint of those demolished wings will be construction of a 19,000-square-foot addition that will be used to house the City of Independence’s fire and EMS vehicles as well as other vital heavy equipment used by the City.
If the Webb plan comes to fruition, then virtually all city services will be contained under one roof, thereby eliminating the need for the City of Independence to use its existing City Hall at 6th and Myrtle streets, EMS services office at 5th and Main streets and the public works buildings at 10th and Railroad streets. Webb said he could envision city offices relocating to the current hospital property by January 2017.
The Independence City Commission was expected to hear the issue at a special meeting Tuesday night. Because of the Montgomery County Chronicle’s press deadline mid-afternoon Tuesday, the details of the story could not be contained in this edition. However, the Chronicle will have an update via its Facebook page later Tuesday.
The proposal already has received an architect’s touch as Sean Clapp of Heckman & Associates has developed a preliminary set of schematic diagrams showing the transformation of the hospital area into municipal offices.
Clapp joined Day and Webb in giving a media tour of the proposed hospital-turned-municipal offices on Monday. Here is a brief breakdown of the proposed plans:
• the current emergency department entrance facing Laurel Street will be transformed into the main entrance for the new Independence City Hall. Upon entering the front entrance, City Hall visitors will be greeted by a dispatching center and a hallway that will lead to the municipal court clerk office, city commission chambers/court room and offices for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Those offices will occupy the footprint of the hospital’s surgical wing and waiting room.
• the area that was used by Mercy for its emergency department will be leased to Jane Phillips Medical Center to use for its imaging and laboratory services. Jane Phillips Medical Center, through its parent company, St. John Health System, has plans to establish a primary care clinic on Mercy property. Because those plans call for Mercy to donate its existing imaging equipment to St. John and because that imaging equipment is currently contained within the Mercy property, it would be difficult to move that equipment to the Jane Phillips clinic offices.
The Jane Phillips Medical Center imaging and laboratory services would have a public entrance that faces now-closed 14th Street.
• The second floor of the hospital, which held its birth center, regular patient rooms, and intensive care unit, would be converted into city offices with minimal remodeling required, Clapp said.
Police offices would be housed in the former birth center while fire department dormitory rooms, training rooms, and living area would occupy the regular hospital rooms. The intensive care unit would be converted into administrative offices, including offices for the city manager, assistant city manager, city clerk, financial office, and customer service staff.
Other rooms on the second floor would be used by the city’s building inspector, Independence Housing Authority, public works director, and water plant operator.
The basement would largely be used for storage area for all municipal offices. However, a portion of the basement would be converted into a crime laboratory for the Independence Police Department. Home Town Health Services, which took over Mercy’s home health program, would occupy a space in the basement for office and equipment purposes.
The price tag
Preliminary estimates for converting the hospital areas into municipal offices would be about $4 million. Of that total cost, more than $2 million would be needed to construct the apparatus bays serving the EMS, fire and public works departments, Webb said.
The $4 million price tag does not include Mercy’s own costs to demolish the round tower and oldest portions of the hospital.
To pay for those remodeling costs, Webb has several funding sources that, he claims, could be used, including:
• the City of Independence’s application for a Community Development Block Grant, also known as a CDBG, which is administered through the Kansas Department of Commerce. The maximum amount awarded would be $400,000 with the City of Independence having to match that grant with $100,000.
• New Market Tax Credits, which is a federally-allowed tax incentive program, that is triggered when a rural health facility is maintained and used for health purposes. Because a portion of the hospital would be leased to Jane Phillips Medical Center for its imaging and laboratory services, hope exists that the City of Independence could capitalize on the availability of New Market Tax Credits, which are sold to investors for a return investment.
• possible other financial donations through Mercy Health System. Webb said he was in negotiation with Mercy to obtain more financial assistance in the conversion of the former hospital into city offices. No agreement has been officially reached about the measure or scope of those financial contributions, he said.
How did we get here?
Mercy Hospital closed its doors to admissions-based patients and the emergency department in early October. In the months before and after the hospital’s closure, Mercy attempted to strike a deal with several medical providers, including Coffeyville Regional Medical Center, St. John Health System and Labette Health, to occupy some aspect of the hospital building.
In late October, Mercy announced it would deal exclusively with St. John Health System, a fellow Catholic-based medical non-profit entity. However, St. John has no plans to run a hospital in Independence. Instead, it plans to operate a primary care clinic and urgent care in other buildings (St. John would still need to use Mercy’s existing imaging equipment, which, because of its size and bulk, will remain intact inside the former hospital).
That left Mercy with no other option but to consider giving the building to the City of Independence, Day said.
“It seems to be a natural fit,” Day said of the possible conversion of hospital space into municipal offices.
Should the Independence City Commission not agree to take possession of the hospital property, then Mercy will have no other option but to demolish the entire hospital structure, Day said.
“It’s not Mercy’s plan to board up the hospital and leave it as an eyesore for the community,” he said.
Mercy is operating under a tight deadline concerning the future use of the hospital. It can no longer provide the funds to heat and cool a nearly-vacant property. Day said Mercy’s chief officials gave him a Dec. 31 deadline to end all services and functions in Independence, including the use of the hospital building. Only a skeleton crew of Mercy employees remain in the former hospital building.
Before Mercy can demolish the round tower and older portion of the hospital, it has to remove and remediate asbestos now contained in those older portions of the hospital. That could take several months, he said. The goal is to have the asbestos removed and the older portions of the hospital gone by June 30, 2016.
Not only does Day have to contend with deadlines, he also has to make plans for the thousands of pieces of medical equipment and other furnishings within Mercy’s properties in Independence. Some of the equipment and furniture will be offered to the City of Independence to use in their municipal offices and services, Day said.
Webb said the need for better municipal offices has never been made more obvious than in the past year. The existing City Hall, which has about 22,000 square feet of space at Myrtle and 6th streets, is no longer able to support most modern technology infrastructures. And, it suffers from outdated and neglected infrastructures, such as water, sewer and electrical systems.
Dormitory space for firefighters is unsafe, inefficient and not conducive to having separate sexes.
Firetrucks have to be ordered to a specific size because of the limited height in the existing firetruck bay.
A crime lab in the basement has a sink that drains directly onto the floor of an adjacent room.
“It’s long past time for us to do something about our existing city offices,” he said. “Not only are they inefficient, but we’ve concluded that the costs to remodel the existing City Hall would be cost prohibitive. It would take considerable amount of money — and a even more considerable disruption of our services — to remodel our offices.”
Building a new municipal complex would cost anywhere from $8 million to $10 million, he said.
As an architect, Clapp has studied City Hall thoroughly and noted that it had outlived its use.
“Any money we pour into the existing structure is like pouring money down the drain,” he said.
Webb said Day made the offer for the City to accept the hospital donation several weeks ago. It has been discussed by city staff and city commissioners in executive sessions, which are closed to the press and public, under the guide of “healthcare negotiations.”
Should City Hall relocate to Mercy Hospital, then there could be several options for City Hall, including making it available to prospective apartment developers or make it available to Montgomery County because of the building’s proximity to the Montgomery County Courthouse.