Hospital board defends $2.6 million reserve
Trinity Standard , April 2007
TRINITY – Tempers flared Monday night as members of the local hospital district’s board responded to recent charges of mismanagement leveled by a fellow board member.
During Monday night’s meeting of the Trinity Memorial Hospital District (TMHD) board, a number of board members said they were upset with allegations made in a number of recent letters to the editor which have appeared in the Trinity Standard.
Responding directly to board member Tommy Turner’s letter to the editor which appeared in the April 12 edition of the newspaper, several board members took exception to charges that they had allowed the district’s tax rate to remain unnecessarily high.
“We’ve been talking about taxes for two years now and Tommy has been on the board when we have had these discussions,” Board President Dave Ward said.
He noted that to help reduce the burden on homeowners and senior citizens, the board last year approved a $5,000 homestead exemption and a $5,000 exemption for those over 65.
Ward also noted that the board will be discussing the possibility of doubling both of those exemptions during the coming weeks.
“We are going to reduce taxes, but we have to do it in a responsible manner,” he added.
The board president noted that the hospital district currently has about $2.6 million in its fund balance – an unbudgeted reserve that is being held to cover emergencies.
He and other board members noted that the main “emergency” the large fund balance was created to cover was the possibility that East Texas Medical Center (ETMC) might one day end its management of the local hospital.
Ward noted that ETMC’s original 10-year contract with the district was set to expire later this year but that the board managed to negotiate a new agreement last year.
“Before we voted to spend several hundred thousand dollars on expanding the hospital’s emergency room, we wanted to make sure we had a new contract with ETMC,” Ward noted.
TMHD is now in the process of spending $361,000 on Phase I of the current ER expansion project, which includes the construction of a new waiting room and reception area. Work on Phase I got underway earlier this year and bids on Phase II -- the remodeling of the existing ER area -- will be sought in a few weeks.
Cost of Phase II is expected to also be about $360,000.
Longtime board member Gordon Cotton noted that $2 million of the reserve would be enough money to operate the local hospital for six months should ETMC leave.
“We would need that money to keep the hospital open until we could find a new management company,” he noted.
“Without it, should ETMC decide to leave, we’d have to shut the doors,” he explained. “This hospital needs to stay open. We have too many people who are over 65 years old who really need it.”
Another longtime board member, Lois Saldana, recalled the days before ETMC took over the hospital’s management. She noted that unlike ETMC, previous management firms were unable to efficiently operate the local hospital and when they pulled out, they left the Trinity medical facility in very bad financial shape.
Saldana recalled that the hospital board was forced to borrow money to keep the hospital doors open on an almost monthly basis.
“We certainly don’t want to go back to that situation,” Saldana said.
A number of the board members indicated they felt Turner’s charges were a “campaign ploy” to garner voter support in the May 12 election.
Turner, who currently holds the Position 7 seat on the board, chose not to file for re-election to that post and instead filled to challenge Position 9 board member Jerry Russ.
Public information requests
During the meeting, Ward also requested permission from the board to contact an attorney regarding the number of Public Information Act requests filed by Turner.
Ward indicated that the board member has submitted requests for a number of items ranging from the oath of office certificates for all board members, committee meeting agendas and candidate applications for three of the people who are running for TMHD board positions in the May 12 election.
Ward and Turner then got into a slightly heated discussion about whether or not all of Turner’s requests for information had been meet.
“We’ll just have to agree to disagree about that,” Turner told Ward.
The board president said he has been getting “a couple of letters” each week regarding requests for hospital district records from Turner and others and indicated he felt they constituted a form of harassment.
“We are trying to comply with the requests, but I want the board’s input on the situation,” he said.
Ward said that Turner has accused the district of failing to comply with the law in responding to his requests.
“I’d like to give all this to an attorney and let see what he has to say about it,” Ward told the board, pointing to the pile of Public Information Act requests from Turner.
The board subsequently voted unanimously to consult with an attorney about matter.
Ward also noted that under board policy, they charge $1 per page for copies of records produced under Public Information Act requests – an amount which he said has been criticized by those making the requests.
He noted that when the charge was approved last year, Turner voted in support of the measure.
“You’re wrong,” Turner said, indicating he did not support the fee.
Ward then told Turner the minutes of the meeting where the charge was approved indicated it was approved unanimously.
“Was it a roll-call vote?” Turner asked.
Ward noted that the minutes only reflect that the vote was unanimous and that Turner was present at the meeting.
The board president said when the issue of charging for copies came up last year, he contacted each board member individually by telephone to get their opinion on the matter.
“The consensus at that time was to charge $1 per page so that is what I recommended when it came up during the board meeting,” Ward said.
During the discussion regarding the public information requests, Russ voiced his displeasure at Turner and indicated that because Turner chose to run against him in the May 12 election, much of the focus was on him.
“I take the hospital board very, very seriously,” he said. “Even though I don’t say quite as much as others, I have the best interest of the community at heart and I work very diligently on this board.
“How we got into this mess I’ll never know but I have been placed smack dab in the middle of this dang controversy and all for a non-paying job,” Russ added.
In another Public Information Act matter, TMHD Secretary Travis Starr provided Position 1 candidate Jerry Coma with copies of financial records from ETMC.
Starr told the board that Coma had also made a number of requests for copies of hospital district records.
“In my opinion, we’ve supplied everything except for financial reports from East Texas Medical Center,” Starr told the board.
He noted that under the TMHD’s contract with ETMC, hospital board members are allowed to examine ETMC financial information but are prohibited from copying the documents or from sharing the information with third parties.
However, Starr told the board ETMC officials had given him permission to provide the information Coma had requested. Starr then handed the document packet to Coma.
Tax exemptions eyed
In other matters, the hospital board met with Allen McKinley, chief appraiser with the Trinity County Appraisal District, to discuss possible increases in tax exemptions.
McKinley noted that last year the board adopted a $5,000 exemption on all homesteads and a $5,000 exemption for property owners who are over the age of 65.
“A few weeks ago, Dave (Ward) contacted me and asked me to run some numbers for the board on the impact of increasing the homestead exemption to $10,000 and the old age exemption to $10,000,” McKinley said.
He told the board that based on his calculations, increasing the two exemptions would reduce the taxable value of the hospital district by almost $21.5 million and would reduce the amount of tax income collected by TMHD by almost $43,000 per year.
Ward noted that the board was not prepared to take action on changing the tax exemptions that night, but he wanted to give the board information they could use during future discussions on the matter.
In answer to questions from the board, McKinley said the biggest changes coming this year in terms of property values would be in the area of rural land.
“There will be an increase in values this year – not a staggering increase because we didn’t cover as much ground this year as we did last year or the year before,” he reported.
McKinley said over the last couple of years, the value of lots has drawn the most attention but this year his staff was taking a closer look at rural land values.
He explained that with the break up of the large tracts of land formerly held by the big timber companies, the value of rural property is increasing.
“Trinity County has been in a situation for, well forever, in which we couldn’t really grow because the big timber company owned all the land,” he said.
Those large tracts have recently been broken up and sold to smaller timber operations and some of it is being broken up into even smaller tracts that are being purchased by individuals.
“What used to be 40,000, 50,000 and 60,000 acre tracts are breaking up and were seeing 100, 50 and 20 acres tracts, which is what will make your county grow,” McKinley said.
During the meeting, the board also:
• Approved an election committee report for the upcoming May 12 board election. Included in the report were recommendation to appoint Barbara Gibson as the election judge for the FM 356 Volunteer Fire Station polling place and Donna Fish as the election judge for the Trinity Volunteer Fire Department polling location.
• Learned from Saldana, chairman of the election committee, that an election school for the election judges and clerks will be conducted by Trinity County Democratic Party Chairman Freddie Chapman starting at 6 p.m. April 23 at the Trinity City Hall. The workers will be trained on the use of the electronic voting machines and on current election rules.