Simmesport health unit now in doubt

Police Jury oks proceeding with design for two options

First it was, then it wasn’t, now it may not happen at all.

The parish Health Unit satellite site in Simmesport has been promised to the residents of east Avoyelles and west Pointe Coupee parishes for over a year.

The Avoyelles Police Jury authorized proceeding with the “design phase” of the project at its Feb. 11 meeting, but there have been enough negative comments to make the satellite office supporters nervous.

Some jurors are saying they either misunderstood the facts or the facts may have changed over the past several months of discussions.

Juror Jacob Coco, who represents the Simmesport area, requested the design phase proceed with two plans -- one to remodel a section of the Simmesport Community Center building and the other to build a new structure on the former school’s campus.

Jurors said some concerns may be addressed by more detailed information and cost estimates. They also said more discussion is needed on what services will be offered if the Simmesport unit is established.

As presented at a Feb. 6 “working group” meeting, the Simmesport Health Unit would cost a minimum of $240,000 and would have only the WIC program -- a food/nutrition program for women, infants and children. It would not provide immunization, education and family planning, etc.

Simmesport Mayor Leslie Draper III remained civil but was visibly upset at a “working group” meeting on Feb. 6 when discussion turned away from “how to proceed” with the project to “whether to proceed.”

The group included state, parish and municipal officials.

Police Jury President Kirby Roy waded head first into the fray when he bluntly stated the $240,000 price tag for the project is too high if it is only going to be used one day a week.

He said he always thought the health unit would be open five days a week and that the cost was considerably less.

“I don’t want to hurt the people of Simmesport,” Roy said.

“If you stop this project after it has been promised, then you WILL be hurting the people of Simmesport,” Draper retorted.

The project has been controversial from the start, even among its supporters.

One group, led by Draper, pushed for the branch to be located in the former Dunbar High/Simmesport Elementary/ parish prison.

The town has a long-term lease with the Avoyelles School Board to use the site for various economic development projects, civic and educational programs and the proposed Simmesport Hall of Fame.

Another group, which included former Police Juror Henry Moreau, favored building a new structure on a different location in town.

APPARENT COMPROMISE

An apparent compromise to build a stand-alone health unit on the Community Center Complex property recently became the favored proposal, but those in favor or renovating the former prison’s infirmary as the health unit have not completely given up.

In the beginning, the Office of Public Health was doubtful of the proposal because the state’s figures did not support the need for a third health unit. OPH looked at the ZIP codes of parish residents who used the Marksville Health Unit to conclude the Simmesport area was being adequately served.

The Bunkie Health Unit is open one day a week to serve that area of the parish, and it was argued that Simmesport also needed that option.

Eventually, Dr. David Holcombe, OPH regional director, agreed there could be enough demand to support the health unit.

This is where memories get clouded. Some say it was always noted that Simmesport would be modeled on the Bunkie health unit program -- one day a week. Others, like Roy, seem to recall hearing the unit would be open three to five days a week.

In addition to Roy, Police Juror Glenn McKinley also told the Feb. 6 working group he could not support the project at the estimated cost if it would have only limited programs and be open only one day a week.

McKinley voted to proceed with the design phase. Roy, as president, chose not to vote on the issue.

However, two new opponents surfaced. Billy Bordelon, whose district stretches from Bordelonville to Spring Bayou, voted against going ahead with the designs. Mark Borrel voted against proceeding with the project, noting that Avoyelles is the only parish in the state with two health units “and now we want three.”

At the Feb. 6 working group meeting, Holcombe was asked how long the Bunkie health unit has been open.

“Ever since Dr. (Don) Hines was the state senator,” he answered with a smile.

Unsaid, but understood, was the reference to Hines’ standing as a persuasive and powerful politician who was always looking out for the best interests of the parish and, particularly, his hometown of Bunkie.

Hines was state senator from 1992-2008. He died this past June.

The building for the Bunkie health unit was donated. The Police Jury spent over $100,000 to renovate the Bunkie health unit last year and spends about $20,000 a year to operate it.

ESTIMATED NUMBER OF USERS

Police Juror Charles Jones, who has championed the Simmesport health unit from the start, said it would begin with one day a week but could grow to three or more days a week.

Holcombe’s numbers indicate about 334 potential users of the state WIC program in and near Simmesport -- 100 in and around Simmesport, 100 in nearby small towns and about 134 in rural areas of Avoyelles and Pointe Coupee parishes.

That would be enough to keep the office open one day a week or maybe only twice a month, he said.

Jones has argued the figures don’t tell the whole tale because they only show those in the Simmesport area that are currently using health unit services. The real need for the health unit, he said, is for residents near Simmesport who are unable to go to Marksville or New Roads in Pointe Coupee Parish. That could significantly increase the number using the satellite health unit.

OPERATING COSTS
Another financial knock against the project was the comment that it would cost about $80,000 more a year to operate the Simmesport unit.

Besides utilities and other operating expenses, Holcombe said the state would have to hire at least one more WIC specialist that would be shared with the Marksville unit. He said existing staffing would not be able to cover that additional shift, even at one day per week.

There is still some discussion on remodeling a section of the old school.

Parish Engineer Ron Bordelon said the cost to remodel a sufficient area of the Community Center site to meet state requirements for the WIC program would be about the same as constructing a new building from the ground up.

NEW VS. REMODELED
Bordelon said most contractors will say they would rather build new than remodel an existing site because there is always the possibility of finding hidden problems once walls and ceilings are torn out.

Those hidden problems can then increase the overall cost of the project, he added.

As if those money issues weren’t enough tacks in the road, Holcombe pointed out that both Avoyelles Parish health units need major parking lot repairs. Those projects combined will cost about $67,000, he said.

Draper argued that nothing has changed in the past year, when “everyone seemed on board” and the people of Simmesport were being promised a health unit would be located somewhere in their community in the near future.

Coco noted at the Feb. 11 jury meeting that there is sufficient reserves in the Health Unit Fund to cover the cost of creating and operating the Simmesport satellite. Those funds cannot be used for anything other than the construction, maintenance and operation of the parish’s health units.

During the debate, Roy said his only concern was “how to justify the cost” for a single-purpose building that would be used one day a week.

“Consider how you can justify telling us for 18 months that a health unit will be located in Simmesport and now you are changing your mind,” Draper responded.

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