More Than It Seems?

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More Than It Seems?

Try this one on for size — you know that list of SPLOST projects Columbia County has been talking up the last few weeks? What if the list was designed to fail?

That’s a theory currently making the rounds, and while it seems preposterous, there are those who insist it has merit.

Accept, if you will, the premise that county leaders want GRU to come out on top in the battle of potential Columbia County hospital providers. Wouldn’t the best way to ensure it be to cut funding to the other two?

Because of the quirks of getting a hospital built — they’re not like Walmarts, where they can just say “We want to build here” — the Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH) has the power to insist on certain things, and they’ve decided that the only way Columbia County, the largest county in Georgia not to have a hospital of its own, gets a hospital is through a technicality. Basically, each hospital needs an exception to allow them to sidestep a demonstration of need.

For Doctors and University, that exception comes in the form of county participation — to the tune of $30 million or so. GRU, on the other hand, could get an exception as an existing trauma center or as an existing teaching hospital, thereby not requiring the county’s $30 million.

So the SPLOST list contains $30 million earmarked for the hospital and $30 million in contingency projects should the county not need to spend the money.

But if the SPLOST list fails to pass in November, that would rob the county of its ability to contribute toward the hospital, leaving GRU as the only viable candidate.

Wouldn’t DCH have made its decision by then?

Possibly. But Commission Chairman Ron Cross and others have said that DCH is under no timetable to make its decision, and knowing that the $30 million is hanging out there in limbo, especially after Richmond County rejected their SPLOST renewal, they just might hang back and wait to see what transpires with voters. By requiring the technicality, it’s pretty obvious they don’t think the county’s lack of a hospital is all that harmful to the health and welfare of the community.

Though it all seems unlikely — or dreamed up by a fan of conspiracy theories — on a certain level it’s not altogether unreasonable.

Looking at this SPLOST list, there’s really not a lot besides the hospital project that would be too painful to the county if it didn’t pass. It’s just not that ambitious. Harlem doesn’t really need a library — it already has one. The county doesn’t really need a cultural arts center. The judges don’t really need a parking garage at the Justice Center. And it’s not like the sheriff doesn’t already have an administrative building, even if it does need an upgrade.

What the county does need is roads. And sewers. And stormwater. And for a county that’s been trumpeting the fact that it’s going to be busting at the seams with new growth, the list is very weak on infrastructure: $1.5 million in Tier 1 transportation improvements, $1.5 million in Tier 1 stormwater improvements, $1.02 million in Tier 1 public safety and emergency services.

The last SPLOST list was infrastructure-heavy, with $54.2 million in transportation projects and $16 million in stormwater and water projects.

The last SPLOST also took its largest and most controversial project, the $18 million aquatic center, and put it on the ballot as a separate referendum.

Ultimately, the SPLOST renewal passed but the aquatic center failed.

With this one, it’s all or nothing, but if voters decide they don’t like these projects and vote it down in November, the county won’t lose any of those pennies, it will just have to come back to voters in a year with a different list — one that won’t contain the $30 million for the hospital, since DCH will have certainly made up its mind by then. The year will interrupt nothing — there will be no gap in collections. The current SPLOST goes through 2016.

And why would the county want GRU to win out? Besides the obvious clout that comes with having a relationship with Georgia Regents University and by extension the state university system, GRU brings with it a wide range of potential support businesses, including the possibility of a high-tech call center that MCG officials touted years ago as the county was moving forward with its broadband infrastructure.

The call center, which would take advantage of the county’s fiber to provide doctors real-time solutions to surgical problems, is rumored to be still very much a possibility, and the jobs it would bring — and the caliber of the employees — would be a real benefit to a community already growing more tech-centric by the minute, thanks to Fort Gordon’s Army Cyber Command Headquarters.

Whether the whole thing is a plausible scenario or just more wild speculation, you’ve got to admit it’s fun to think about.