Originally created 12/29/96

Delays may cost center, taxpayers



AIKEN - Delaying approval of a 1997 operating budget past January for the Mattie C. Hall Health Care Center could cost Aiken County taxpayers.

Vicki Major, the nursing home's administrator, said the center may have to dip into its reserve fund to pay increased operating costs if Aiken County Council delays approval of the facility's budget for an extended time period.

The county, which has owned the 176-bed nursing home since 1982, is currently repaying a $3.4 million bond on the facility. Taking money from the $2.1 million cash reserve fund, which is being used to pay off the bond, would require county taxpayers to replenish the fund.

"If they delayed it for an extended, long period of time, it could hurt us a good bit," Ms. Major said. "If it's only a month or so, it wouldn't impact us too much."

The council approved a resolution two weeks ago to allow National Health Care, the center's Tennessee management group, to operate the facility at its 1996 funding level until the county's internal auditor has a chance to review the 1997 budget. The review was requested by outgoing councilman Russ Ferrara, who won't be able to vote on the proposal.

Most council members said, however, that they feel comfortable with the nursing home's budget and would have approved it if Mr. Ferrara hadn't made his request. They agreed to delay the vote "out of respect" for him, council members said.

Earlier this year, council members expressed concern about extraordinary line items in the facility's proposed $460,482 budget, including $3,500 for silverware replacement. But those questions were answered at a meeting between the council and the center's management in November, Councilman Willar Hightower said.

"I've got all my questions answered," the Aiken Democrat said. "I don't think there's going to be any changes (in the budget) in terms of new discoveries or anything like. If so, then we'll deal with that .°.°. I felt we were all ready to go (this month), except for one council member."

Councilwoman LaWana McKenzie said most of the council's questions concerned the language used in the budget to describe some purchases, including one for a $500 mop bucket. Mattie C. Hall used "bad terminology" to describe some purchases, she said.

Meanwhile, internal auditor Jason McKinney said Thursday he isn't sure if he would have all the information requested by Mr. Ferrara ready by council's Jan. 28 meeting - the next time members plan to consider the budget.

In a memo to Mr. McKinney, Mr. Ferrara asked the county to examine NHC's management fees, any consultant fees paid by NHC in regard to the nursing home and the annual budget and how it compares to annual expenditures.

The memo also asked the internal auditor to recommend a procedure for conducting periodic financial reviews and, if possible, to recommend a room rate increase that would give NHC a "net zero profit."

Ms. McKenzie warned, however, that council members need to be careful how closely they cut the nursing home's budget if they want to keep the cost to patients down.

Room rates at the facility have risen steadily by as much as $4-a-day since 1991. Private patients currently pay $89-a-day - a $16 increase in the last five years. Council approved a $1.50 increase in February and the 1997 budget includes another $4-a-day increase.

Mattie C. Hall's management fees have also increased significantly in the last six years to $285,000 annually - a $71,340 increase since 1991.

Council rejected a new five-year contract for NHC that would have initially paid the company $296,520 a year to continue running the center. Instead, the county extended for another year the current contract, which expired in 1993.

However, not all council members are comfortable with the county running a nursing house.

Last year, council declared the facility surplus property, but rejected several subsequent buyout offers, including a $5 million to $6 million proposal from NHC in October 1995.

In the end, council chairman Ronnie Young said he's comfortable with NHC's current budget and expects it to be approved by the council soon after the internal auditor's report.

"Several council members have questions," the Gloverville Republican said. "The internal auditor's going to look at it .°.°. After those questions are answered, I think we'll go ahead and approve it."