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MetroSouth tax break gets county support

Wednesday, April 07, 2010
SouthtownStar
by Maura Possley

A Blue Island hospital Tuesday gained preliminary approval from Cook County commissioners for a proposal that would slash the hospital's property tax bill by more than half.

MetroSouth Medical Center is seeking to reduce its tax burden from roughly $5 million to about $2 million to help it continue a turnaround and earn a profit.

The hospital, 12935 Gregory St., took over the former St. Francis Hospital in July 2008 and turned it from a nonprofit to a for-profit operation.

By doing so, the city of Blue Island kept its largest employer, but it also meant the hospital would face its first ever property tax bill.

St. Francis owner SSM Health Care sold to MetroSouth investors after operating the hospital for more than 100 years, largely because it couldn't recover from losses sustained in caring for indigent patients.

SSM had been prepared to close the hospital if a buyer was not found.

MetroSouth's board chairman Tom Reardon stopped short from saying Tuesday the so-called tax reclassification would save the hospital from a similar fate.

But he said it is carrying the same burden - caring for uninsured and underinsured patients - that only has grown during the recession.

"It would be very difficult to complete the turnaround" without the tax break, he said after their plan sailed through the board's finance committee by a 15 to 1 vote. "We're not there yet but it helps a lot. We're essentially at break even."

The proposed "reclassification" of its property with the Cook County assessor's office would assess it at the lowest possible value, and the reclassification would remain in place for 10 years if it gains final approval, said Commissioner Joan Patricia Murphy (D-Crestwood), its sponsor.

The hospital must now gain approval from the city of Blue Island, where Mayor Don Peloquin has previously expressed his support, as well as the county assessor's office and return to the full county board for a final nod.

Tuesday's committee support, however, likely will mean the hospital would face little resistance along the way.

Commissioner Forrest Claypool was the lone dissenting vote and said the plan amounted to poor public policy.

"It's not our role to hand out tax subsidies to individual taxpayers with special legislation, however good the intentions underlying it," said Claypool (D-Chicago). "I think there's issues of providing the support for a for-profit entity."

Critics have also charged the reclassification could lead other non-profit hospitals to turn for-profit and demand the same tax break.

Murphy has maintained stipulations prevent that possibility by applying only to hospitals turned from nonprofit to for-profit status, and in locations with 10 percent or more of residents living below poverty level.



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