Commissioners call hospital district election for May 11

Photo courtesy of Glen Rose Medical Center

Photo courtesy of Glen Rose Medical Center

By Kathryn Jones


After a standing-room-only, contentious public hearing Monday morning, Somervell County commissioners approved a petition’s order to call a hospital district election.

The election will be held on May 11, the same date as city council and school board elections.

The vote was unanimous, but the hospital district issue has split the commissioners court. Some commissioners had questions and reservations about calling a hospital district election.

County Judge Mike Ford reminded the court that the vote on Monday was not “yea or nay for a hospital district.” The question was whether the petition presented to him several weeks ago by James Burkhart, co-chair of the Glen Rose Medical Center Hospital (political action) Committee, “meets the criteria for establishing an election,” Ford said.

“This is not a choice,” he added.

If commissioners did not follow the law and call an election, Ford said, they could be ordered by a high court to “demand us to do our higher duty.”

“I know some of you are against this,” Ford said. “But we have to do this. This is a petition by the people. This court does not have the right to deny the petition by the people.

“Ultimately, any of your misgivings really don’t have anything to do with this question today – did they meet the criteria? Can anyone here say they don’t meet the criteria?”

The petition contained 308 verifiable signatures, exceeding the requirement for 100 signatures to call an election, Ford said.

County Clerk Candy Garrett and Cathy Thomas, the county’s voter registration officer and elections administrator, both reviewed the signatures.

“Cathy has verified there are at least 100 signatures,” Ford said.

That meant that the commissioners must call an election as required by law, he added.

Commissioner Larry Hulsey said he had a “problem” with the list of temporary directors for such a district. There was some confusion about whether those who signed the petition were aware of the list, he said.

Ford said the petition included names of temporary directors. A permanent slate of directors would be voted on in the next general election.

Commissioner John Curtis said there are two methods for coming up with a list of temporary directors – one by which the names appear on the petition or the commissioners court appoints temporary directors. In this case, the list of temporary directors was provided on the petition.

“Does that answer your question?” Ford asked Hulsey.

“Yes, but I disagree with it,” Hulsey replied.

Commissioner James Barnard wanted to know who would pay for the election.

“We pay for our portion of these costs,” Ford said.

“Well, I have a problem with that,” Barnard said. “The PAC (hospital district political action committee) instigated the petition.”

“By law we pay for it,” Ford said.

Barnard asked County Attorney Andrew Lucas if he agreed with that. Lucas said he did.

Hulsey also asked where operating money for the medical center would come from until the district takes over if the election passes.

Ford said as soon as commissioners canvass the vote and agree the election has passed, “at that time the county is out of the hospital business.”

All debt and assets related to the hospital would be transferred to the district, in addition to indigent care, he said.

The current Hospital Authority Board already has looked at how the district would operate and is expecting to receive several million dollars when the so-called “1115 Medicaid waiver” funds arrive. This is a federal incentive program to give states more flexibility in expanding Medicaid care to more poor and near-poor citizens.

Ford said the Hospital Authority Board “understands the financial impact” and that it “will be a struggle that first year.” But the 1115 funds, which had been delayed, are coming and the hospital has a line of credit to handle expenses, he pointed out.

Hulsey then asked about the 17.5 cents per $100 valuation that would be the maximum the hospital district could impose on taxpayers.

“Let’s say it goes to 17.5,” Hulsey said. “Then a year from now that is not enough. They have to come back to the voters and ask for more money?”

Barnard asked why the cap of 17.5 cents is more than twice as much as the county’s.

“We’re underfunding them and can’t tax high enough to give them the money they need,” Ford responded.

He added that the county doesn’t know what its own 2013-2014 tax rate will be because it doesn’t know yet what the valuation of the Comanche Peak Nuclear Plant will be.

“There’s a lot of supposition going on about what the tax rate might be,” Ford said.

As the debate continued, Burkhart rose from the audience and asked why some commissioners are “scared” of calling an election and letting the voters decide the issue.

“This is a democratic country and I think they should get on with it,” Burkhart said.

“It’s already been voted down 2-1,” Hulsey said, referring to the past election in which voters defeated the creation of a hospital district.

Others in the audience raised their hands to speak, but Ford said, “We’re not getting into it.”

Ford said he didn’t want to stop discussion among commissioners and asked if any of them had more questions or comments.

“This is your bully pulpit,” he said.

There were no more comments from commissioners, so Ford closed the public hearing portion of the meeting and asked for a motion.

Commissioner Kenneth Wood moved to approve the order of the election on May 11. Curtis seconded it.

“My understanding is we are satisfied we have met the requirements,” Curtis said. “All voters who signed the petition have been verified as acceptable.”

Ford said yes, and repeated that Thomas, Garrett, Lucas and he had verified the petition.

The vote was 5-0, with Hulsey reluctantly raising his hand.

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