Ascension may turn it into government office complex
GONZALES -- Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez says he is interested in converting Gonzales’ Ascension Hospital, its land and related buildings into a new, consolidated parish government complex.
The board that oversees the 81,000-square foot, 54-bed hospital building at 615 E. Worthey Road and its other properties wants to hand them over to parish government after attempts during the past 15 months to make a financial go of leasing the space have not succeeded, hospital officials said.
The council agreed Thursday to allow the parish administration to look into the feasibility of moving parish offices into the public hospital facilities, which are just down the road from the Parish Courthouse Annex on South Irma Boulevard in Gonzales.
Before the vote Thursday, a top hospital board official told the council that major tenant Promise Healthcare informed the board 15 months ago it would not be renewing its five-year lease.
The lease signed in late 2006 with three five-year options to renew made the struggling hospital operation financially flush, enabling it to put $553,000 a year into the community by funding school counselors, parish mental health and other programs. Promise’s lease expired in September 2011.
Cynthia Stafford, chairwoman of the East Ascension Hospital Service District’s board of directors, said Thursday the board and Promise tried to find new tenants, and still have some occupants, but rental fees do not generate enough revenue to cover expenses.
“So what we’re finding now is the hospital can’t sustain itself. We’re going in the hole every month,” Stafford said.
She said that at current rates, the hospital board spends at a minimum about $60,000 per month in operational costs. She said electrical bills for around the clock service in the building can run $30,000 per month.
Stafford attributed the board’s inability to lease the hospital to new tenants to uncertainty in the medical industry and the hospital’s need for possibly millions of dollars in major upgrades.
Martinez acknowledged this week that he and Stafford discussed last year the hospital’s financial problems and the possibility that the parish government could take over the property.
The site encompasses several acres, the hospital and other buildings, including one housing the Caro Clinic, which has a 20-year lease, and another where the parish morgue is located.
Martinez said the hospital board asked to have until this summer to work out solutions to its problems with the facility. Martinez also confirmed he advised the board that if the members were going to give the building to the parish, the parish did not want to take it over with no support money available and with new maintenance responsibilities.
“So that’s where we’re at today, and the thought process is that parish government could take over the hospital, renovate it and actually centralize parish operations at that site,” Martinez said.
Stafford said the hospital district has about $5 million in the bank.
Martinez added later he has also spoken with parish lawyers about dissolving the hospital service district. The council appoints members to the district board.
While the Parish Courthouse in Donaldsonville on the west bank of Ascension serves as the parish seat, parish offices on the more-populated east bank are spread out among several locations.
The hospital building, which dates from 1967, at one time housed a general hospital with an emergency room. But the hospital since then has been converted into providing a variety of other health-care services and functions, including long-term patient care. The emergency room closed in 1999.
Seaside Healthcare LLC, based in Shreveport, has subleased the hospital’s top floor from Promise since 2010 to operate a 26-bed geriatric psychiatric facility.
Franklin Roemer, managing member of Seaside and nephew of former Gov. Buddy Roemer, said Friday his company has known for a while about the hospital board’s uncertainty in regard to the facility.
He said Seaside, meanwhile, has scouted good alternative locations in Baton Rouge but would like to continue leasing the 20,000-square-foot top floor.
“I don’t know what their plans are. If we can share that space at all, it works real well for a hospital. It works real well for us,” Roemer said, adding he hopes to speak with Martinez in the near future.
J. Wayne Sheets, chief financial officer of the hospital, said in an interview Friday the hospital is finalizing a one-year lease with Seaside to give the company time to make plans.
The lease gives either side 30 days to break the agreement.
On Thursday night, Councilman Todd Lambert questioned the hospital building’s overhead costs, noting the electrical bills of $30,000 per month, but Stafford said the council could realize savings by modernizing the building’s air-conditioning system.
Martinez added the parish could move operations for which the parish now leases space, such as the District Attorney’s Office, into buildings the parish owns and uses for its operations but would be vacated with the consolidation he envisions.
Martinez said the parish had not made plans or yet looked into its options in regard to the hospital and did not want to do so as long as the hospital board could come up with an alternative.
“But we couldn’t,” Stafford said.