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Racine moves forward with proposed clinic/community center in historic Lincoln-King Neighborhood

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RACINE — The Racine City Council voted on Tuesday to move forward with the initial steps toward constructing the health center/community center complex, estimated to be a $65 million investment for the historic Lincoln-King Neighborhood.

The council voted to award the $4.1 million contract for architectural and engineering services to SmithGroup of Milwaukee.

The proposal passed the council on an almost unanimous vote, with Alderman Jeffrey Peterson as the lone “no.” Aldermen Marcus West and Melissa Land were excused. Alderman Mollie Jones abstained. The city continues recruiting for a representative for District 15.

There were five responses to the city’s request for proposals (RFP) but only the one submitted by the Smith Group was complete.

There was some confusion because the proposal from the Smith Group was a $1 million more than the other proposals. Isn’t the municipality supposed to go with the lowest bid?

Terrence "Terry" McCarthy

McCarthy

Alderman Terry McCarthy explained there were seven requirements attached to the RFP, and the four cheaper bidders did not bid on all the elements. If the city had chosen to go with one of the lower bids, it would not actually be a cost savings because those elements would have to be contracted out to an additional firm.

Only the SmithGroup’s proposal covered all seven elements the city was looking for.

Rendering shows proposed Racine Community Health Center

A rendering displayed at a March 2022 event shows the proposed Racine Community Health Center to be built next to Julian Thomas Elementary School, 930 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, Racine.

Health Center

The proposed Racine Community Health Center and a new building to house a new MLK Community Center are being planned for the vacant site next to the Julian Thomas Elementary School, 930 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.

In a previous meeting, Kathleen Fischer, the city’s finance director, called the proposed health/community center complex one of the biggest public projects the city has undertaken.

Mayor Cory Mason and city leaders announced plans for the health center in May 2019, noting that Racine is the most-populous city in Wisconsin without a federally qualified health center (FQHC) that would serve low-income people and those who have inadequate or no health insurance.

An FQHC provides services regardless of an individual’s ability to pay. The federal government provides certain incentives in return, such as cash grants, cost-based reimbursements for Medicaid patients, and malpractice coverage, which can be very expensive.

The bulk of the funding to-date has come from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. In addition to some smaller grants, the city has pledged $10 million and the State of Wisconsin $20 million through the Healthcare Infrastructure Capital Investment Grant Program.

The council reiterated that no decisions would be made about the current MLK Community Center until a new one was constructed and operational.

There has been some consternation in the community due to the rumor the MLK Community Center was slated to be torn down.

Opposition

The project was not without opposition.

Michael Schrader

Schrader

Michael Shrader, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the council during the spring elections, spoke out against the project during public comments.

He called it “a vanity project” and “unnecessary” because it’s just minutes away from Ascension All Saints Hospital, 3803 Spring St.

“The location is not a health care desert as it’s actually closer to the hospital than I am,” he said.

Alderman John Tate II, the president of the city council, clapped back during debate on the issue.

“There’s a reason federally qualified clinics exist,” he said. “It’s because the services offered there are not contingent on the ability to pay, which is what private hospitals often do. That’s why people don’t get the care they need.”

He continued: “We’re seeking this so people who live in our city who don’t have the means to attend an Aurora out on the freeway may have a place to go where they can get the care they need without worrying about whether they’re going to be able to pay their rent as an alternative or buy food as an alternative.”

Tate went on to say he becomes aggravated when people do not understand there are people who cannot afford to pay for “services they desperately need (while others) don’t recognize the efforts the city is making to try and provide those services and alleviate barriers.”

Costs

Jeffrey Peterson, City of Racine alderman, headshot

Peterson

Peterson raised the issue that the city does not actually have all the money to pay for the project right now and asked if the city would have to take out a loan to see it through to completion.

Paul Vornholt city administrator Racine

Vornholt

City Administrator Paul Vornholt said the project, which has been estimated to cost between $55 million and $65 million, is about two-thirds funded. He said there were more opportunities for the city to pursue in order to get the health care clinic completely funded, including grants and fund-raising through health systems. For example, Ascension Health has pledged $1 million toward the project.

Peterson questioned whether the city’s health department would be running the center.

Vornholt said the center would continue to be overseen by the 501©(3) non-profit board that is overseeing it now, the Racine Community Health Care Center Board, which was “created to manage, build, and operate this clinic.”

There are still many decisions to be made, Vornholt continued. For example, there has not been a determination of how the center will be staffed, whether there will be an executive director or if another health care system to manage it.

He assured Peterson the construction portion of the project would come before the City Council before bids go out, so the councilmen could see the hard numbers and funding sources before the project moves on.

No decision had been made, Vornholt said, about whether the city’s health department would move to the new facility.

However, Peterson said he had done the research and in 70 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties health departments were run by the county. The city having its own health department makes it an outlier, along with Milwaukee.

Peterson said that is what he would like to see for Racine; that is, allowing the county to run the health department, which he saw as saving the city $3 million. He pointed out the county took over the entirety of the 911 dispatching, and he wanted to see the same for the health department.

Alderman McCarthy stepped in to point out the city’s health department is run almost entirely on grants. The city might save the money by cutting the director’s salary, but not much else.

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Reporter

Dee Hölzel has been reporting since 1999 and joined the Journal Times in October 2020. Dee graduated with an MA in History from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, specializing in the intersection of history and journalism.

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