Jefferson Parish’s effort to lease its public hospital in Marrero to a private operator won’t reach an initial closing phase this month, as many involved in the process had projected, but it’s closer to that stage than ever, officials said at a Parish Council meeting Wednesday.
The state Attorney General’s Office — which is reviewing the parish’s proposal to lease West Jefferson Medical Center to LCMC Health in return for at least $200 million in payments over 45 years plus $340 million in capital improvements — asked parish officials if they’d be available for a public hearing on the pending deal during the latter part of September.
The AG’s Office can’t formally approve the deal until that hearing is held, so the fact that it is seeking to schedule that session in the next few weeks means approval is nearer, officials said.
Deputy Parish Attorney Ed Rapier said the earliest of several potential dates for that hearing is Sept. 18. Assuming the attorney general subsequently approves the lease, it would be considered initially closed, and it could begin undergoing a “true up” process in which all of the costs associated with the transaction are adjusted as needed.
That period could last up to six months. The lease deal won’t be considered completely closed until that process is finished.
In a related matter, the consultant who since 2014 has been advising the parish on its efforts to lease West Jefferson will remain in his role until the initial closing of the deal with LCMC materializes. Joshua Nemzoff’s contract was set to expire Sept. 5.
LCMC can walk away from the deal if the initial closing doesn’t happen by Sept. 30, but both sides can agree to extend that deadline.
A faction of council members — Ben Zahn, Cynthia Lee-Sheng and Paul Johnston — wanted Nemzoff to stay on board through the “true up” period. But another faction — Chris Roberts, Elton Lagasse and Ricky Templet — have lobbied to cut ties with him as quickly as possible.
Nemzoff’s pay has been a bone of contention among parish officials. He was initially hired for a flat fee of $625,000, but after parish Inspector General David McClintock questioned the arrangement, officials asked Nemzoff to bill the parish hourly so they could monitor his progress on closing a deal.
Under an hourly rate of $650, Nemzoff has ended up charging the parish in the neighborhood of $1 million.
His initial contract was set to expire earlier this summer. Roberts, Lagasse and Templet opposed extending it, balking at the cost.
But Johnston, Zahn, Lee-Sheng and Councilman Mark Spears voted to extend it through at least Sept. 5, saying they valued the expertise of a hospital mergers and acquisitions specialist who had helped the parish sign a deal worth more than a half-billion dollars.
Officials had hoped the deal with LCMC would reach initial closing before Sept. 5, but that won’t happen, and the council meeting Wednesday was the last one slated before Nemzoff’s contract was due to expire.
Johnston proposed extending Nemzoff through the “true up” phase at a flat fee of $75,000.
“It’s bad for us to drop our financial adviser in the middle of the race,” Johnston said. “We’re an inch away from a touchdown.”
However, Lagasse, Templet and Roberts again balked at Nemzoff’s price, and Spears joined them. Spears said it is likely that the same firm that audits the West Jefferson hospital would participate in the “true up” process and Nemzoff’s services would be unnecessary. He suggested retaining Nemzoff only until the initial closing at the $650 hourly rate, with a cap of $75,000. He said he hoped the parish would end up paying him far less.
Lagasse, Templet and Roberts backed Spears.
Lee-Sheng, Johnston and Zahn also voted for Spears’ motion to ensure Nemzoff is around beyond Sept. 5, but they expressed their unhappiness at letting the consultant go before the deal is closed for good.
Lee-Sheng said million-dollar disagreements are common in “true ups” and that paying $75,000 would have ensured Nemzoff is watching the parish’s back.