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Hospital's tax bug looks contagious
Resurrection, union spat spreads beyond Evanston

Monday, April 04, 2005
Crain's Chicago Business
by Brett Chase

A contentious ballot issue in Evanston this week may be just the beginning of headaches for Resurrection Health Care, parent of eight Chicago-area Catholic hospitals.

Evanston voters are being asked Tuesday whether the property tax exemption for Resurrection's St. Francis Hospital should be reviewed by Cook County. A Chicago City Council panel is expected to consider a similar proposal Monday for Resurrection hospitals. And Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin plans to introduce a measure Tuesday calling for a review of all tax-exempt properties in the county.

At stake for Resurrection are millions of dollars in property taxes it would be asked to pay if challenges to the hospital system are successful. By a labor group's estimate, Resurrection Health Care gets $72 million a year in property tax breaks. (The hospital says it hasn't done its own analysis.)

The issue grows out of charges brought by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which began publicly criticizing the hospital system's charitable care practices after attempting to organize Resurrection workers more than two years ago. Resurrection believes the union wants a so-called neutrality agreement, which among other things prohibits an employer from resisting unionization. The union says it hasn't gotten to the point of seeking such an agreement.

Resurrection cut charitable care at its hospitals while aggressively pursuing poor people who can't pay their medical bills, AFSCME now contends. That behavior, which Resurrection denies, would break state rules allowing non-profit hospitals exemption from property taxes.

AFSCME has funded the Evanston campaign to revoke St. Francis' tax-exempt status, which it's had since its founding in 1901. The tone of the effort — including mailings and door-to-door stumping by labor representatives, as well as a Web site — is similar to one being mounted against Oak Brook-based Advocate Health Care as the Service Employees International Union tries to organize at facilities in that eight-hospital system. Grass-roots campaigns such as these have become popular with unions nationwide as membership slips and labor groups lose clout at the bargaining table.

Bewildering ballot?

Resurrection's supporters worry that the complex wording of Tuesday's referendum item will favor the union.

"Shall the Cook County Assessor challenge the tax-exempt status of Resurrection Health Care properties, including those in Evanston, Illinois, if it is determined that the health care corporation does not meet the standards for these exemptions, due to failure to provide adequate charity care and for filing lawsuits against indigent debtors?"

"It's another way of trying to change the balance of power," says Cheryl Maranto, an associate professor of management at Marquette University in Milwaukee who has written on labor issues. Even if the union doesn't successfully organize at Resurrection, it may gain leverage, she says. "Next time AFSCME goes to a hospital, they say, 'Give us our neutrality agreement or we'll do the same to you.' "

SOCIAL CONCERNS

For its part, AFSCME says it's tackling a social concern while addressing issues important to its members. After Resurrection took over St. Francis in 1997, charitable care was cut by about half to $3.9 million by 2003, the union says. St. Francis officials don't dispute that claim, but say the hospital provided about $21 million each of the past three years in charitable care and writeoffs for people who can't pay their bills.

"What the union wants to do is pick a number that makes its case," says hospital CEO Sherlyn Hailstone. She calls the move an "unprovoked and vicious attack."

She hopes her hospital will prevail in Tuesday's vote in Evanston, but she says that wording on the ballot issue may give the hospital's detractors an upper hand.

Both sides say the dispute goes beyond the Evanston hospital.

AFSCME is challenging the entire Resurrection system. Its choice of Evanston as a battleground is logical, given residents' longtime complaint that they shoulder an unfair property tax burden, says the County Board's Mr. Suffredin, who supports the union's organizing effort. About 5% of all parcels of property in the near north suburb are off the tax rolls, according to the Cook County assessor's office. Previous disputes have pitted Northwestern University, a large tax-exempt landowner, against residents. An AFSCME spokeswoman says some union members, mostly Evanston city employees, called for the vote.

Mr. Suffredin says the vote also speaks to an even larger issue. "I don't have a gripe with Resurrection," he says. "There are 88,000 parcels of land exempt in Cook County, not including those owned by religious organizations." A review of properties should take place on a regular basis, he says. The exemptions "were never intended to be perpetual."

Chicago Alderman Joseph A. Moore (49th) says the accusations against Resurrection merit a probe. His proposal to investigate the matter has support from 29 aldermen and is on the agenda of the City Council's Finance Committee on Monday.

DISMISSING MOTIVE

Mr. Moore, who takes campaign contributions from AFSCME, dismisses Resurrection's claims that the tax-status campaign is the union's retribution. "AFSCME has its own motives, but it begs its own question," he says.

The Evanston referendum is dividing politicians. U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Evanston, is the most prominent elected official to support the union effort. Her photo and endorsement are featured prominently on political fliers AFSCME mailed to Evanston voters.

The Evanston City Council voted last week to encourage voters to reject the ballot issue, but the issue has pitted Democrats, who are usually more sympathetic to union issues, against each other. Evanston Alderman Ann Rainey called it "criminal" to single out St. Francis, which is in her ward

 

 



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