The town of Bluffton would be smart to consider an $8.5 million bond issue to help a major new health care facility get off the ground.
In today's economy, governments seem to be inundated with proposals for public-private partnerships, asking them to support things that would be better left to the private sector. That has included resort, residential and retail projects.
But the request for Bluffton to financially back a proposed 198-bed health care facility warrants consideration.
The list of potential benefits to Bluffton and surrounding communities, as outlined by the Hilton Head Island-based firm seeking the town's help, helps explain why: "$78 million capital investment, 300-plus new jobs with $12 million annual payroll, new tax dollars, expands physician base, improves overall quality of health care, reduces cost of health care, allows the community to receive this level of care close to home, utilizes local higher education."
If a jump-start by the town is needed, it should be considered.
The applicant is PACE Healthcare Management. Its proposed PACE Healthcare Commons near the intersection of Bluffton Parkway and S.C. 170 close to Sun City Hilton Head would offer four types of care. The company says its proposed 120-bed skilled-nursing facility and 22-bed geriatric psychiatry hospital have certificates of need from the state. Its proposed 32-bed, long-term, acute-care hospital and 24-bed rehabilitation hospital do not yet have certificates of need.
The fact that the proposal gets the scrutiny of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control is helpful to Town Council. The certificate of need process assesses the market and aims to prevent duplicate health care facilities and services in a given area.
PACE leaders say the facility would complement local hospitals, not compete with them. The guiding principle is to help patients at risk of further hospitalizations to live independently.
The challenge is to finance the $78 million cost. Town support is seen as a way to attract private investment. The town has been asked to support a bond issue of some $8.5 million that would be repaid with interest in monthly installments over seven years. The money would help prepare the 16-acre site, which is zoned for this use.
Bluffton needs to slowly and deliberately consider all ramifications of this commitment. It needs to carefully assess its risk, and how those risks could affect the taxpaying public.
Town leaders and attorneys should examine a worst-case scenario in great detail to determine what is needed to protect the taxpayer. If the town is to help the for-profit firm reduce its risk and help it with start-up costs, the public must understand its liabilities. The public impact of the project's failure must be known, as well as the potential benefits of its success.
Bluffton leaders say the process is only beginning and a lot of dialogue will follow. They should keep the public in the loop. They should keep an open mind about this particular public-private partnership due to its potential positive economic and quality-of-life benefits.