Jackson County

Could PERS manage failed Singing River Health System pension plan?

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD/FILESinging River Health System's embattled pension was the subject of a 57-page motion filed by retiree attorneys claiming a violation of the code of judicial misconduct by SRHS attorneys, Judge Breland Hilburn and Magistrate Brit Singletary.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD/FILESinging River Health System's embattled pension was the subject of a 57-page motion filed by retiree attorneys claiming a violation of the code of judicial misconduct by SRHS attorneys, Judge Breland Hilburn and Magistrate Brit Singletary. SUN HERALD

PASCAGOULA -- Jackson County supervisors decided Monday to write PERS and see if the state retirement system would consider managing the county hospital's pension plan.

And if so, what it would cost and if the state would then guarantee the pension.

The Singing River Health System retirement plan was under the Public Employees Retirement System until 1983, when it broke away at the urging of the hospital management at that time.

The decision to approach PERS came at Monday's board meeting in the wake of a bold motion by Supervisor Ken Taylor -- take back the county's pledge of $13.6 million over eight years to help Singing River Health System stay afloat financially. The pledge is part of a settlement agreement and class action under way in federal court.

The board's reaction to Taylor's proposal was swift.

Supervisor Barry Cumbest said it would undermine work on the federal settlement.

Supervisor Melton Harris, called it "a very severe backwards step."

And Supervisor Troy Ross said the millions in tax dollars, "were the funding mechanism to make sure the hospital can survive long term," and if the hospital fails, so does the pension plan.

Besides, he said, SRHS trustees have resigned as a part of the agreement and he wasn't sure if the county could go back at this point.

"By taking back the money, the only thing you do is open yourself to problems," Ross said. "We'd be going into an area, where we don't have the authority to begin with, to figure out what numbers need to be to make the hospital survive."

Taylor wanted the county to step out of all the litigation and set up a strategic task force that would include the hospital administration, its Board of Trustees, the companies that insure the hospital's bonds, a consultant, legislators and the retirees.

He said the problem all along has been that the current settlement excludes many of the retirees and their representatives.

He also said the settlement has no guarantee of what the retirees will get and for how long. And, he said, it lets the administrators of the failed plan off the hook.

Taylor also said he did not agree with attorneys representing a small group of retirees getting $6.4 million for negotiating the settlement.

"Serious questions are out there," he said. "And we need to back away until they are answered."

Bring in experience

On another note, the Board of Supervisors voted to set up an advisory board of eight doctors, with decades of experience and "a wealth of knowledge that has gone untapped," for solutions in the problems with SRHS.

Cumbest suggested the doctors write their recommendations for the failing hospital system, but the board voted unanimously to set up the board.

It will include: Dr. Alfred McNair, Dr. John McKee, Dr. John McCloskey, Dr. Jack Hoover, Dr. John Pavlov, Dr. William McClendon, Dr. William "Pete" Avara and Dr. Steven Fineburg.

The motion was to set up the group as an advisory board to the county with no authority over the hospital.

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