A lot of interesting and potentially positive ideas have been floated as ways for Albert Lea to deal with Mayo Clinic Health System's plan to move inpatient hospital care from there to Austin.
The notion of the city and/or county using eminent domain to keep Mayo from doing it isn't one of them.
The notion has been kicked around since last summer, not long after MCHS announced, in a ham-handed way, that it would move its roughly 20 inpatient hospital beds from the medical center in Albert Lea to Austin, while transferring other services to Albert Lea. MCHS says it remains committed to investing and growing in Albert Lea and it will keep a 24-7 emergency room.
But some patients, union members and public officials have expressed outrage for almost a year now, and what was described last June as Freeborn County's "nuclear option" for keeping Mayo from making the change — eminent domain — has been flirted with ever since.
In February, the Save Our Hospital group hosted a Hamline University professor, David Schultz, to talk about how that would work. According to a story in the Albert Lea Tribune, Schultz said local government potentially could use eminent domain to stop Mayo dead in its tracks.
Schultz said the city and/or county "would be responsible for paying just compensation for the property and would need to have a valid public use," according to the Tribune — and the importance of keeping inpatient hospital care in Albert Lea "is clearly a valid public use," he was quoted as saying. "You're not going to get a single judge in the state of Minnesota to second-guess you on that one," he said.
That's a bold statement, and it was red meat to Mayo opponents and elected officials. A few days later, the Freeborn County Board asked the county attorney to take a close look at the possibility, the Tribune said. Mayor Vern Rasmussen told the Post Bulletin that the city council had a closed-door meeting on the topic.
How would this work? The city and/or county would invoke state law and take Mayo's property, paying tens of millions of dollars for it, and then find a new company to operate it. Mayo has made it crystal clear that it has no interest in selling the Albert Lea medical center — it's committed to investing millions of dollars more in Albert Lea, as it has for more than 20 years. So if the city and county were to pursue this, it would be a long, luxurious feast for attorneys.
By and large, Americans aren't big fans of eminent domain. A government "taking" of private property for a road project or other high-priority public purpose is a last resort. It's generally a bitter one for all concerned.
The Post Bulletin contacted Schultz, who's a professor of political science at Hamline, and he said, "In general, I have not offered specific legal advice to the (Save Our Hospital) group. My talk to them has been to say that in general, there is broad case law that allows for the taking of private property (including a business) for a valid public use."
He was contacted by someone from Save Our Hospital several months ago, he said, and he offered to talk about rural health care issues as well as eminent domain.
"There are, of course, many complicated issues surrounding a 'taking' here, including some state law issues, coming up with the just compensation for the taking, finding another entity to run the facility and staffing it. All of these points might mitigate against the eminent domain option, but still in theory, eminent domain is one factor to consider and might be a viable bargaining tool with Mayo."
Yes, in theory, it's possible. But we'll go out on a limb and say there's no way on Earth the city of Albert Lea or Freeborn County will seize Mayo's medical center in Albert Lea. City and county taxpayers wouldn't stand for putting tens of millions of dollars at risk, not to mention a few millions spent here and there for attorneys, and it's hard to imagine that anyone in leadership in Albert Lea thinks eminent domain is a real option, or even an appropriate theory.
As Schultz indicated, this so-called "nuclear option" is more about having a bargaining tool. If that's the case, it's not a very good one.
As we've commented in the past, Mayo Clinic Health System badly mishandled the transition plans in Albert Lea and Austin — it wasn't just a failure to communicate, it was a failure to involve the community in a meaningful way. As we've also said, we don't see why at least a delay in the transition is impossible.
But no one's interests are served by threatening something as absurd as the city or county "taking" Mayo's property.
Post Bulletin, Rochester, Minnesota, April 14.