Judge offers to mediate Braddock cases
County says 'no', 2 lawsuits involving UPMC are different
Sunday, March 07, 2010
By Karamagi Rujumba, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
An Allegheny County judge wants to mediate a case concerning the reopening of UPMC Braddock hospital, but County Executive Dan Onorato is opposed to the idea, according to correspondence between Common Pleas Judge Gene Strassburger and attorneys for the county, UPMC and Braddock residents.
Judge Strassburger is presiding over two cases filed by a group of Braddock residents -- one against Allegheny County for offering tax-exempt bonds to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and another against UPMC, aimed at forcing the hospital system to reopen the Braddock facility it closed on Jan. 31. The judge, in a March 2 letter, offered to consolidate both cases and preside over negotiations instead of proceeding to a trial.
"Please advise me as to whether the parties desire to: push ahead with litigation or let matters sit for a while or allow me to attempt to mediate the situation," Judge Strassburger wrote to lawyers representing the county, UPMC, and the residents group.
In a March 5 response, UPMC attorney John E. Hall said the hospital system would be willing to participate in those negotiations "if [Mr. Onorato] believes that the court can be helpful to facilitate a resolution."
But Mr. Onorato, through county Solicitor Mike Wojcik, declined the offer on the same day saying that "the county does not believe that a mediation could result in a resolution that would satisfy the interested parties."
Mr. Wojcik also objected to consolidating both cases before Judge Strassburger, saying they are substantively different cases.
Kevin Evanto, Mr. Onorato's spokesman, said the county would not involve itself in any mediation attempt between UPMC and Braddock residents and officials.
"We feel very strongly about our lawsuit. We are not a party to the other lawsuit, and so the mediation has to be between those two parties," said Mr. Evanto.
A group of Braddock residents and activists from surrounding communities have been engaged in a public relations and legal battle with UPMC since October, when the hospital system announced plans to close its hospital in the Mon Valley borough.
UPMC officials cited consistent drops in the number of area residents who used the hospital and annual losses of between $4 million and $12 million in operating it.
Since then, the hospital system has announced it will tear down the building -- possibly as early as June -- to allow the county to put together a redevelopment plan, which would see a private developer build a massive $24 million office complex on the site.
The complex would be subject to borough property taxes and would include housing for senior citizens, space for doctors' offices and classrooms for job training.
As part of that proposal, backed by Mr. Onorato, UPMC would pay about $5 million to tear down the building. It would offer the county $3 million, which would leverage another $3 million from the state for redevelopment, and pay $90,000 in lieu of wage taxes to Braddock for five years.
However, Braddock Council members, residents and members of the group Save Our Community Hospitals initially rejected the proposal, contending the county and UPMC never tried to recruit another health care provider to take over the facility and operate it as a hospital.
They say UPMC and the county are rushing to tear down the building to deny the borough any chance at another health care provider that would run it as a hospital.
But after a two-hour meeting with Mr. Onorato on Feb. 19, Braddock officials and opponents of the hospital closure said they had a better understanding of the proposal and would decide whether to support it this month.
Also in his letter, Mr. Hall told Judge Strassburger that UPMC never planned to tear down the building until "[Mr. Onorato] determined that building demolition and site redevelopment was the only feasible option."
"We stand willing and able to make an additional, substantial financial contribution in order to assist the Borough of Braddock and surrounding communities and are awaiting word from the County Executive and [Braddock] officials as to the final details," said Mr. Hall.
Allegheny County Councilman Charles P. McCullough, who is representing some Braddock officials and a number of residents and activists in both cases against the county and UPMC, contends that Mr. Onorato, by refusing to sit at the negotiation table, has become an obstacle for all parties involved.
"He has failed to lead and he refuses to stand with the people of Braddock. Instead, he is standing in the way of UPMC and the residents of Braddock who want an amicable solution," said Mr. McCullough.
Read more: http://www.postgazette.com/pg/10066/1040919-114.stm#ixzz0haJAVOsy