Candidates Differ on Lakeland Regional Health Lease

Candidates for City Commission agreed far more than they disagreed at a forum today hosted by the Republican Club of Lakeland. The issue that brought the sharpest differences was whether the current commission was correct in giving Lakeland Regional Health a five-year break on increases in lease payments to the city. More on that after video of the forum; skip ahead to the 16:15 mark to hear candidate statements:

Five of the seven candidates for contested seats on the Nov. 5 ballot spoke before a lunchtime crowd of about 40 at the Cleveland Heights Golf Course Clubhouse.

Candidates for the at-large seat being vacated by the term-limited Justin Troller included Chad McLeod, Carole Philipson, Ricky Shirah and Shandale Terrell. Pablo Sologaistoa did not attend today’s forum.

First-term Northeast District Commissioner Bill Read appeared, but not opponent Jiwa Farrell. Commissioner Phillip Walker is so far unopposed in his bid for a final term.

Commission races are non-partisan; the final day to qualify to run for the office is Sept. 20.

In responses to questions submitted to audience members, the candidates were generally in agreement that they’re skeptical of initiating a city broadband utility, don’t believe in raising taxes, support efforts to increase affordable housing and want to see the city expand preferences to local businesses when choosing vendors.

On a question about pay for police officers, all agreed that law enforcement officers deserve raises, though the candidates did not directly address the part of the question that asked whether they’d support raises “above what is offered to the general employees.”

No questions were asked about proposed changes to the City Charter on the Nov. 5 ballot, including a measure that would reduce the barriers to selling the city-owned Lakeland Electric.

The hospital lease was the one question that brought diverse answers. City commissioners last month voted 6-1, with Read opposing, to cap Lakeland Regional Health’s negotiated 2.75 percent annual increase in lease payments to the city through 2024. The move is expected to reduce hospital payments to the city by $48.6 million between now and the 2040 end of the lease.

Read and Philipson were firmly against freezing the lease increases. The others were less adamant. Summarizing their positions, in the order they spoke:

Read noted that he was the only commissioner who voted against the proposal after the commission failed to support a compromise he offered for a lesser reduction. “Ultimately, you guys (taxpayers) are going to end up paying for it,” he said.

Terrell called the situation a “Catch 22,” saying, “I really wouldn’t want to freeze it, but … then you have to have a conversation to make sure they understand what happens if you freeze it.”

Shirah said he would have to look into it more and make sure the city makes the right choices to ensure it has enough revenue in 2040, when the lease ends.

McLeod praised the city’s administrative staff for finding creative ways to cap spending increases for the next five years. “In the long term, that’s a discussion we have to have as a community. I strongly believe that when it comes to quality of life that we need to have strong quality health care … and that lease payment becomes part of that equation.”

Philipson, who was Lakeland Regional Health’s vice president of operations from 1996 to 2011, said, “I would not have frozen the lease. It has a $48.6 million impact on the city budget.” She addressed concerns that Florida’s recent relaxation of hospital regulations would bring competitors to Lakeland by saying that it will take at least five years for another hospital to establish a foothold here.

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