STARKVILLE – Oktibbeha County voters want OCH Regional Medical Center to remain a county-owned hospital.

In unofficial results from the Tuesday referendum, there were 5,271 votes against the sale of the Starkville hospital– just shy of 58 percent of the ballots cast. Those in favor of the sale had 3,819 votes, 42 percent. The results do not include absentee or affidavit ballots.

OCH Regional chief executive officer Richard Hilton praised the teamwork of supporters Tuesday night.

“The voters – the will of the people – have spoken,” Hilton said. “This is what we need going forward to provide the best health care for the county.”

Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors president Orlando Trainer, who has long been an advocate for selling the hospital, said the people of the county took the opportunity to participate in the discussion about the future of the hospital.

“The only thing we can do is look at our options and do what’s best for the county,” Trainer said.

The debate about whether the Starkville hospital should remain county-owned or be sold to a larger hospital system has been percolating for some time.

Those advocating for the sale of the hospital felt the county would be better served in the long run by a system that could bring broader resources and services than county tax payers would be willing or able to provide.

Those against the sale made the case that OCH Regional is a well-run hospital that benefits from local control and raised concerns that an outside company would reduce staff and services. The medical community and the OCH Regional board of trustees have been strong proponents of keeping the hospital under local control.

With input from a consultant, the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors sought proposals for the sale or lease of the hospital. Tupelo-based North Mississippi Health Services and Memphis-based Baptist Memorial Health Care both submitted proposals to purchase the hospital.

A group of concerned citizens circulated a petition to bring the referendum to county voters.

The run up to the vote has been contentious with active traditional, as well as social media, campaigns. Both sides accused the other of circulating false information.

Supervisor Bricklee Miller took a polygraph test to address rumors she would benefit from the sale.

Complaints have been filed with the Attorney General’s Office accusing a pro-sale Nothing but the Facts group of failing to register and file financial reports.

On Tuesday, election officials had to replace a touch screen voting machine because of a malfunction on Tuesday morning. No votes were lost, and all votes were recorded as voters wished.