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FRHD board ratifies controversial sale of hospital to mental health provider

Much to the chagrin of many people in attendance at its special board meeting July 28, the Fallbrook Regional Health District (FRHD) board unanimously (a 5-0 vote) passed a resolution ratifying the sale of the Fallbrook Hospital building to mental health provider Crestwood Behavioral Health, Inc. for $4.5 million.

The special session held in the board room at the Fallbrook Public Utility District attracted a standing-room only crowd and lasted nearly 3 1/2 hours. The meeting began with public comments and 31 members of the community went to the podium to express their views.

By the Village News' count, 21 of the speakers voiced opposition to the sale, while the other 10 speakers expressed their trust in the board, their gratitude for the work of the board members, and the need for mental health services.

As was the case during the board's regular meeting July 12, opponents voiced concerns about the types of individuals that Crestwood's proposed Fallbrook Healing Center would serve and safety for the community.

Fallbrook resident Peter Klein questioned Crestwood's credibility, citing an informational ad for the Fallbrook Healing Center that was published in the Village News July 20.

"It stated no one with a violent felony conviction will be treated at this facility," said Klein of the ad. "It does not say except or sometimes."

Klein then went on to hold up photos of convicted felons who were treated at Crestwood facilities in Eureka, San Jose, Chula Vista and Sacramento.

"So, who can you believe?," asked Klein. "Crestwood, who states, 'no violent felons will be housed in Fallbrook,' or the board, who obviously has their heads in the sand regarding the safety of Fallbrook."

Fallbrook resident Scott Atkins stated that he and his family had a home next to a mental health provider while living in Sacramento and had no issues.

"I’m probably the only person here that’s lived next to a facility," said Atkins, whose home was located next to Heritage Oaks Hospital. "We lived there for 24 years, right next to that hospital, and never had a problem. It didn’t generate that much traffic because you didn’t have people coming and going. They maintained the facility impeccably. They took good care to make sure people didn’t leave or escape. It never happened.

"I just have to say it can be run properly and can be done in a way that’s not a danger to the citizens," concluded Atkins.

The lack of a public vote on the sale of the hospital – which board and district officials had promised residents in the past, when the property represented 50 percent or more of the district's assets – was also frequently brought up by opponents.

"Don't exclude us from this decision," said Tracey Schwandt. "It's our rightful vote. Don't silence us. Together, we can achieve great things."

"Fifty-seven thousand taxpayers hired you to provide for their health care interests," said resident Maryann Hobbs. "I propose even now, the district can delay the close of escrow and can conduct a public vote on the sale if you choose to do so. Nothing in the law prevents a public vote on this sale."

Resident Brian Hobbs questioned the board's transparency and due diligence.

"As far I can tell, the only due diligence that was done prior to signing that sales agreement on May 10 was how do we get this thing done without taking it to a public vote," said Brian Hobbs. "That was the only level of due diligence that was done, unless there was information we haven't seen, and we've requested everything."

Brian Hobbs then referenced the purchase agreement.

"You will see that the board agreed to – it's a representation and a warranty by the seller – that no public vote would be required," said Brian Hobbs. "It's written. They signed it. No public vote will be required. No public determination would be required. They agreed to that. No public hearing would be required. They agreed to that. The second that they signed off on that agreement, they teamed up with the buyer. They left us in the past. I can't understand that. I don't understand how somebody could do that."

Director Stephen Abbott addressed the issue of a public vote.

"Was a vote of the residents ever considered?," said Abbott. "The short answer is yeah, at the time that the hospital’s property was such that it had a substantially higher value, yes. But it lost its acute care license after being inactive for two years and no longer being a hospital, which significantly reduced the value of the property.”

FRHD attorney Blaise Jackson explained that the sale price of $4.5 million represents only 37.9 percent of the district's total assets ($11,862,107 according to the monthly financial statement ending May 31) and therefore a public vote wasn't required under the health and safety code under which the district operates. Jackson cited statue 32121 subsection p, subsection 1, that states a public vote would have been required if the building had represented 50 percent or more of the district's assets.

“It’s staggering to me that you have to rely on that to make the right decision," said Brian Hobbs. "That’s the part that I’m not coming to grips with. To rely on the technicalities of all this, it makes no sense. It’s like me talking to my 11-year-old about shortcuts versus doing the right thing. We’re going to rely on technicalities in how this is all calculated when it really should have been put to a vote.”

Dr. Frank Winton, who served on the district board for almost two years, said the board has been working diligently to find a buyer for the hospital since it closed in December 2014.

"I can attest to that because I was on the board and I saw all the different entities that came through, and there were many," said Winton, who served as chief of medical staff at Fallbrook Hospital. "Unfortunately, financially, for lots of reasons, that was not to be.

"The empty shell that was the former hospital continues to need maintenance, security and attention but is no longer a place of healing," continued Winton. "Currently the property benefits nobody. It has the opportunity with this to be revitalized again as a place of healing. Would we prefer a full-service local hospital, of course, but that isn't feasible."

Opponents also questioned the suggested benefits for Fallbrook, in addition to the $4.5 million, such as the 108 full-time jobs that would be created. "The jobs benefit is a promise which is completely hollow as employers cannot discriminate based on location," said Maryann Hobbs.

Despite the negative comments, board members steadfastly expressed their belief that they were doing the right thing by approving the sale. Abbott noted that the board could have approved the sale at the July 12 meeting but tabled the motion in order to do more homework and communicate with the community.

Abbott's homework included visiting Crestwood facilities in Northern California.

"Doing the additional due diligence and realizing the quality of the organization we’re dealing with, it makes me more assured we’re doing the right thing," said Abbott, who noted that one Crestwood facility is a research partner with Stanford University. "So of all the places they could have picked, they picked a Crestwood facility, and I think that says something."

Board president Gordon Tinker referenced Crestwood's safety record, which includes never having had an AWOL client go out and create harm or havoc in the community.

“My wife and I have lived in this community for 42 years," said Tinker. "I’ve served in various capacities serving this town for 32 years. The last thing I would ever do is do something to create a public safety problem."

Tinker said he communicated with law enforcement officials in three cities that have Crestwood facilities, and they reported that having Crestwood in their communities was "a real benefit, and as far as public safety is concerned, it’s a non-issue."

"That really helped clear my mind up for me," said Tinker. "I appreciate both Howard (Salmon, vice president of the board) and Steve’s efforts to put this decision off for two weeks. I’ve learned a whole lot more in the last two weeks and every additional thing I’ve learned has been positive.”

Salmon said Crestwood's track record of helping patients is "very good."

"There is accreditation of hospitals," said Salmon, a former CEO of three hospitals. "In the rehabilitation field there’s an organization called CARF, the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities. It said Crestwood is 'a leader in the provision of innovative, creative and effective services.'"

In the roll call vote, directors Bill Leach, Salmon, Barbara Mroz and Tinker all quickly cast an affirmative vote. Abbott hesitated and stated that he wanted to make sure that the board had answered all the questions from the audience. After a few more minutes of discussion, Abbott made the vote unanimous.

"Leadership is doing what you feel is right in your gut, based upon the best information that you have available at the time," said Abbott. "It’s not always the popular thing, it’s certainly not the easy thing, but it’s what you believe is the right thing to do, not only for the community, but those around us, our friends and our neighbors and our families.

"In my gut, in my heart and my head, I believe this is the right thing to do," continued Abbott. "I quite clearly understand that many of you are uncomfortable, and I respect that. But I’m confident this is the right thing to do and I would vote yes.”

The often boisterous crowd filed out quietly after the motion passed.

Editor’s Note: Look for a story on what the FRHD is planning to do to benefit the greater Fallbrook area with the $4.5 million from the sale in an upcoming issue of the Village News.


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