By Lynda Jones
A handful of residents attended the Houston County Hospital District public hearing Monday, Aug. 21, regarding the petition calling for a tax-related election.
Five or six attendees firmly voiced their opposition to having an election to lift the 15 cent cap on the HCHD tax.
Board President Deborah Blackwell made repeated efforts to explain the election is not to raise the tax, but to give the district the ability to raise it to the statutory limit of 75 cents at some point in the future.
"It's just a tool for us to use," she said.
According to Blackwell, 107 registered voters signed the petition calling for the election.
Blackwell additionally reminded those at the meeting of the Rollback Rule. If the board should decide at some point in the future to raise the tax 8 percent or more (like it did two years ago), taxpayers can petition to hold an election to approve or disapprove of the tax increase.
When the district went from a 3 cent/$100 valuation tax to a 15 cent/$100 valuation tax, no residents petitioned for a rollback election.
Blackwell further stated it would be impossible to raise the tax rate before the next fiscal year (2018).
Ronnie La Rue, a retired teacher and former HCHD board member, chastised the current board for accumulating $7 million in debt within about one year.
Part of the debt was for the purchase of the medical professional building and part of the debt was a loan from Prosperity Bank that was used for hospital operating expenses during the transition from ETMC to Houston County Medical Center, before Little River Healthcare approached the district about operating the hospital in April 2016.
Kathi Calvert, manager of the Houston County Electric Cooperative (HCEC), was one of a couple who favor the election to lift the cap.
Calvert said the employees at the HCEC are conscientious about being safe, but accidents still happen. She said she is concerned about the impact on injured employees if there is not a hospital, or at least an emergency room.
While some of the opponents to the election requested by petitioners argued if the cap is raised, the HCHD board will raise the tax to 75 cents/$100 valuation. Each time, Blackwell stated it is not the board's intent to raise the tax to 75 cents.
"We just want to raise the cap," she said firmly.
Carol Dawson, a board member, said, "Without healthcare, this town will die. We'll never have the kind of hospital we had. It's frightening."
Dawson, Blackwell and Larry Robbins, a board member, all stated the board is exploring every option.
One option being explored is an emergency room and four beds. Another option is a Critical Access Hospital that could be licensed for up to 25 beds. A Critical Access Hospital, Blackwell said, would get reimbursements from Medicaid that would make it viable.
The board also firmly stated they are not going to take over the hospital themselves. They are actively seeking a partner to operate the facility and not leaving any stones unturned.
At the end of the night, the board unanimously voted to accept the petition and ordered the election to be held Nov. 7. Driskell stated his vote was given "reluctantly", that it was only for giving the people a chance to vote on the matter.
Board members Dr. Perry Ramsey and Dr. John Stovall were absent.