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Council delays vote on Bayfront plan

City Council members say they can't draw a conclusion until they have more information.

By WES ALLISON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Big proposal. Big holes.

That was the message to Bayfront Medical Center on Thursday from the St. Petersburg City Council, which spent two hours privately discussing the hospital's proposal for settling their ongoing dispute over Catholic influence at Bayfront.

The council then voted unanimously to defer public hearings on the hospital's plan until the city could request more details from Bayfront and review them. No deadlines or meetings were set.

"I don't think we can make a solid decision on anything until we can get more information," council member Frank Peterman said after the meeting.

Council members said they need more details about Bayfront's financial condition, its arrangement with the BayCare Health Alliance and its obligations to Catholic ethical and religious directives before they can consider the hospital's proposal, which includes an offer to buy its city-owned land and buildings for $47-million over 47 years.

Several also questioned how Bayfront arrived at the price. A tally of Bayfront property puts the value of land and buildings at more than $80-million, but the city and the hospital haven't agreed on who owns what.

"We would have to know a lot more about their finances and operations as well as the land," council member Bea Griswold said. "Their business operation has a value. What is it?"

Bayfront spokeswoman Lisa Patterson said the hospital would respond accordingly when it got an official request for more information from the city.

Although the hospital is private, it leases some of its land and buildings from the city for $10 per year. Bayfront and the city have been at odds since city officials learned last year that the hospital was following some elements of Catholic doctrine as a result of joining the BayCare Health Alliance in 1997.

Bayfront and five other area hospitals, including two Catholic ones, formed BayCare to consolidate services and save money, and Bayfront agreed to follow certain aspects of the Catholic doctrine governing health care to satisfy its new Catholic partners.

Bayfront ended a handful of elective abortions and made other church-related changes to meet those requirements. The city sued in April, alleging improper conflict of church and state.

Summer-long attempts at mediation failed, and last week Bayfront brought the city a plan for settling their differences: Bayfront would no longer be obligated -- mostly -- to Catholic doctrine, and it would buy the city-owned land for $47-million.

Mayor David Fischer quickly came out in favor of the proposal. But Thursday, after being briefed by their attorneys, several council members said they were floored by Bayfront's offer to buy out the city's interest in the hospital, especially since the hospital still hasn't answered their concerns about religious entanglements.

"Now, with this issue still unresolved, we're expected to transfer property?" council member Bill Foster said. "That was a very bold step."

Several said Bayfront officials lied in 1997 when they told the council that joining BayCare would mean no substantive changes, and they don't trust them now.

"For everything they propose, there better be documents that prove what they say is what they're going to do," Griswold said. "Fool me once, but don't fool me twice."

Fischer said he believes Bayfront's settlement proposal adequately defines the hospital as secular and removes the Catholic influence "as much as possible." But he also said he wasn't frustrated with the council's decision to defer further action on it.

"They want to see some documents, that's fine," the mayor said. "I think it's a good framework to work from."

- Times staff writer Bryan Gilmer contributed to this report.

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