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    Beware of deals in the heat of battle

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000

    There is a deal on the table that is supposed to clear up the trouble between Bayfront Medical Center and the city of St. Petersburg.

    Yep, that would be a relief.

    The question is whether this particular offer is worth the relief being promised. The wearier you are of haggling, the more tempting it is to take the first decent-sounding deal.

    As you will recall, the city is suing Bayfront. The reason is that Bayfront leases part of its land from the city on the cheap, but it has joined an alliance that includes Catholic hospitals. This alliance, called BayCare, has accepted Catholic wishes on some matters such as abortion.

    Why is that a problem? Catholic hospitals: good thing. City subsidy of Bayfront Medical with a cheap lease: good thing. Mixing them together, so the city is subsidizing Catholic-chosen doctrine: bad thing. Unconstitutional, even.

    There are two foolproof remedies:

    (1) Get Bayfront out of BayCare, so there is zero chance of religious influence, or ...

    (2) Sell the city's land to Bayfront so it is an entirely private corporation free to do as it wishes.

    Each foolproof remedy has drawbacks. Supposedly, being part of BayCare saves Bayfront millions a year, the difference between black and red ink. (I say "supposedly" because this has not been proven publicly.)

    On the other hand, selling the land to Bayfront means the city gives up any control or influence forever, surrendering the last vestige of this once-public hospital. There is talk that the city could tie some strings to a sale, but that may prove impractical.

    Bayfront wants to settle. It has come forward with a new deal. The hospital says it has changed its terms with BayCare so it is no longer "subject to, or obligated to follow" religious doctrines.

    Bayfront also offers to buy the city's land for $47-million, or $1-million a year for the next 47 years. The hospital also offers to put more community representatives on its board.

    The mayor, David J. Fischer, has come forward to endorse the deal -- taking an uncharacteristic strong public stand, hooray, but with what scrutiny?

    Read on, and find the loopholes.

    First, Bayfront insists that it will continue to follow the existing policy on not performing abortions, which is part of what started this fight.

    Also, the agreement says BayCare may continue to seek to impose religious-related decisions -- Bayfront has the right to refuse, but if that happens, either BayCare can kick out Bayfront, or Bayfront may choose to drop out.

    In other words, it is all or nothing. If the alternative is getting kicked out of BayCare, the pressure not to resist an individual decision will be awesome.

    I asked the City Council's best skeptic, Kathleen Ford, about Bayfront's terms. "There is still an obvious entanglement with the Catholic Church," she replied. "If this were agreed to, we would continually be making sure the church is not making the decisions."

    On top of that, the city has no idea whether $47-million is a fair price -- or even, how to calculate a fair price. We are not talking about a gas station here.

    Would she sell?

    "I don't know," Ford answered. "To me, the religious entanglement has to be out of there. How is what is going to be this community's decision."

    In the end, we live in the real world, not an ideal one. Maybe this fuzzy language offered by Bayfront is enough for the city to accept (although outside lawsuits such as the ACLU's might continue). Maybe, even, the city should decide to give up its land -- for a fair price, whatever that is.

    The City Council will meet secretly next Thursday to hear the lawyers explain these terms. After that, there will have to be public hearings and public discussion before any decision. "As-is" is okay for yard sales, used cars or even some fixer-upper houses, but not for hospital deals. Seller, beware.

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