By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HARTWELL - Depending on who's talking, the Drake Center rehabilitation and nursing center is a crown jewel for Hamilton County - or a massive waste of tax dollars.
More than 30 people spoke Tuesday night at a four-hour public hearing on whether the Drake Center's request for a 31 percent tax increase should go on the November ballot.
Drake's proposed levy would provide the center about $20 million a year, up from nearly $15 million a year it gets now.
Taxes for the owner of a $100,000 home would increase from about $26 to about $34 a year. That increase, however, far exceeds a goal set by county commissioners to hold special levy tax increases to about 2 percent, or roughly the pace of general inflation.
The Hamilton County Tax Levy Review Committee will meet at 5 p.m. today at the Hamilton County Administration building, sixth floor, 138 E. Court St., to debate its recommendation to county commissioners. The committee plans to vote Monday.
To get a Drake levy on the November ballot, Hamilton County commissioners must vote by mid-August.
Monday, the Hamilton County Tax Levy Review Committee is expected to make its recommendation to county commissioners, who must decide by mid-August whether to put the proposal on the ballot - and how big it should be.
Supporters included a nationally prominent stroke expert, the area's top trauma surgeon, a veteran health-care executive, several satisfied Drake patients and the Hamilton County sheriff.
"Drake remains without question the best place to get care for brain or spinal-cord injury and is as good as anywhere for treatment after a stroke," said Dr. Joseph Broderick, chairman of the University of Cincinnati neurology department. .
Drake has helped many people, including deputies who have been injured in the line of duty, said Hamilton County Sheriff Si Leis.
"If any of us are injured, we know we have access to the best medical care anywhere, bar none," he said.
Dr. Jay Johannigman, director of trauma surgery at University Hospital, said he has tried placing some trauma patients at other area nursing homes and rehabilitation centers. But in many cases, those services have rejected patients that Drake routinely accepts.
"Drake is the only place, in my opinion, capable of rendering that care," he said.
Critics of the Drake levy included health-industry consultants from Cleveland and Columbus, local nursing-home owners, a well-known anti-tax activist, a spokesman for area apartment owners, a local doctor and an unsatisfied relative of a former Drake patient.
Kurt Haas, a long-term-care consultant from the Columbus area, said he was seriously injured after a car crash in 2001 and recovered well even though Columbus has no tax-subsidized center like Drake.
"I couldn't walk or talk ... ," Hass said. "Our community-based facilities provide a level of care we often don't appreciate."
Barry Bortz who owns Carespring Healthcare Management, said he was shocked at the high costs Drake reports for skilled nursing.
Drake's nursing costs run about 70 percent above market averages for other nursing homes, according to a study by Howard Wershbale & Co., a Cleveland-based consulting company.
Several nursing-home experts said other community facilities that don't get tax support could handle most, if not all, of Drake's nursing-care patients.
But Drake officials - and UC doctors - say it isn't fair to compare the center to community nursing homes because it provides care that cannot be found in such homes.
The tax levy review committee is not likely to recommend no levy at all for Drake, said Chris Finney, committee chairman.
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