County Fee Contract Stirs Heated Debate

County Manager Carol Borer Signs Controversial Agreement with Hospital Without Knowledge of Commissioners

By JULIA WELLS

At a scrappy meeting that saw plenty of disagreement but little in the way of accountability for the disordered events of the last two weeks, the Dukes County Commission this week tried to sort its way through a jumble of conflicting facts surrounding a contract designed to funnel $500,000 in taxpayer money into the Martha's Vineyard Hospital.

The money is intended to help defray the cost of emergency services at the hospital.

Two weeks ago the community learned that the county plans to collect a $49,500 fee from the hospital to administer the contract, causing widespread consternation among Vineyard residents and public officials alike.

After heated discussion at the regular meeting of the county commission on Wednesday night, one clear fact emerged: The decision to charge the hospital a fee was made by the county manager, without consulting county commissioners and without consulting the members of a subcommittee charged with managing the contract.

The chief executive officer of the hospital was also in on the fee deal.

On Wednesday, county manager Carol Borer told the county commission that the separate contract between the county and the hospital was recommended by county attorneys at Ropes & Gray in Boston.

"It was recommended by our counsel that we have a separate agreement [for the fee] - it didn't require permission of the committee to have a separate side agreement," said Ms. Borer.

"Permission? The word I would use is communication. The committee should have known about it. We could have eliminated a lot of this with communication. Communication is the key," returned county commissioner Roger Wey.

Ms. Borer said her decision to shift the fee to the hospital was intended to save money for the towns. The county manager did not say how she intends to address the thornier aspect of what is now a clear legal problem: An inter-municipal agreement signed by selectmen in all six towns last year spells out a plan to charge the towns for any administrative fees associated with the contract, but in late July Ms. Borer executed a separate contract between the county and the hospital for the hospital to pay a fee of $49,500. The contract was signed by Ms. Borer and hospital CEO Kevin Burchill.

Some members of the county commission expressed open ire at both the decision to charge a fee to the hospital, and the way the decision was handled.

"We have been left out of the loop as county commissioners - this did not have to happen the way it happened," said commissioner Dan Flynn. "The fee is a shell game; it's taking money out of one pocket and putting it into another pocket, and I don't think we are in that business. I am not in favor of charging any money at all - to the hospital or to the municipalities," he added.

"I am on the committee and I never saw any of this and I also don't agree with this. You are charging the hospital money and the money has got to come from somewhere. This amount of money is absurd, and it will be coming out of the hospital. I am really disappointed," said Mr. Wey.

"In my opinion this whole matter has been handled poorly, and it conflicts with what the towns agreed to in the inter-municipal agreement. This would all be a lot better if everybody knew who's on first base," said commissioner John Alley.

County commissioner Robert Sawyer defended the actions of the county manager and attacked the Island newspapers. "It is sad and negative that newspapers tend to sensationalize important county activity," Mr. Sawyer said, reading from a prepared statement.

"The county manager elected to charge the beneficiary of the funding [the hospital] for the fees rather than charge the towns as defined. . . . It would seem that this decision should result in accolades for the county manager," Mr. Sawyer said.

Commissioner Leonard Jason Jr., who first conceived the idea of using taxpayer money to support the hospital more than two years ago, appeared to try to distance himself from the whole issue. In harsh tones, Mr. Jason blamed the subcommittee for its shortcomings.

"I think that what's happened is we had a committee set up a contract, and the committee failed to realize that this is going to cost a hell of a lot of money," Mr. Jason said.

"I didn't draft this - you guys did," Mr. Jason told Mr. Wey, who is a member of the subcommittee.

After more heated discussion, the county commission voted 6-0-1 to send the entire issue of the hefty contract fee back to the county subcommittee for fresh review.

Mr. Sawyer abstained from the vote.

Mr. Flynn moved to eliminate the fee entirely, but the vote failed after a flurry of confusion over parliamentary procedure.

At the outset of the meeting, Ms. Borer distributed a stack of paperwork that was intended to clear up the brouhaha surrounding the contract and the fee.

Among other things, Ms. Borer had prepared the projected costs associated with the county work to administer the fee, including legal fees and audit fees. Ms. Borer had also compiled the cost of hourly labor to take emergency room information produced by a computer at the hospital and enter it into the county computer to create a new database.

Tom Pachico, a Tisbury selectman who attended the meeting, questioned the need to take a printout from one computer and re-enter the data into another computer.

"I am no computer expert, but why don't you just use a disk and save yourself $30,000?" Mr. Pachico said.

"I don't mind paying reasonable costs, and I don't think anyone else does either," he added.

Mr. Wey said no one on the subcommittee ever envisioned $49,500 worth of costs associated with the contract.

"We would have been looking at this in a very different way if we knew that this was going to be the cost. We had 32 meetings; we met for two years, and this was never discussed," Mr. Wey said.

"That's not our fault," Mr. Jason shot back.

"We knew that the towns were responsible to pay the fees," said Mr. Alley. He also said he believes the separate contract between the county and the hospital needed the approval of the special subcommittee.

Named the emergency medical services procurement committee, the subcommittee includes county commissioners and representatives from each Island town. Two other appointed members of the committee, Patty Begley and Marvin Joslow, attended the meeting on Wednesday night. Both said that the committee never envisioned a large fee for administering the contract between the county and the hospital.

There was more confusion later in the meeting when Tisbury resident Woody Williams questioned the fact that the committee charged with managing the hospital contract kept no minutes for the better part of a year.

"If you violated the open meeting law, then everything that you did can be declared null and void," Mr. Williams said.

Last week Ms. Borer and Mr. Sawyer both said that the subcommittee had only kept minutes for four months.

But on Wednesday night, Ms. Borer suddenly produced minutes of the remaining subcommittee meetings. "Here are the minutes if anyone wants to see them," the county manager said, waving a thin sheaf of papers.