Property tax rate lowered
By Rich Heiland
Free Press Publications, LLC
For Walker County News Today
This article updated to correct an error, noted below in boldface.
THE WALKER COUNTY Hospital District’s Board of Managers met with its lawyer in closed session for more than an hour Wednesday night at Huntsville Memorial Hospital to discuss pending litigation and the possible sale of district-owned property. The properties include the Ella Smither site in downtown Huntsville and possibly the current hospital facility on I-45.
There was no discussion or action taken following the closed session.
The Walker County Hospital Corporation, which manages the hospital, has fallen deeply in debt and there has been speculation it would declare bankruptcy, possibly within the next few weeks. If that happens the next question is whether the District Board would agree to sell the hospital to a new operator as opposed to leasing it, a potentially complicated proposition.
During the regular meeting Michael Morgan, a managing director of Healthcare Management Partners, LLC and interim administrator of HMH, told the directors the hospital owes several million to vendors and providers. The hospital no longer is paying monthly rent to the Hospital District. That discussion came when John Nabors, director of the county’s EMS system, told directors the district and hospital are behind some $25,000 on payments for transporting indigents with some bills dating back to 2016. Correction: The District no longer pays the EMS directly. Money for indigent care, including ambulance service, is given by the District to the hospital which is supposed to make the payments. Nabors was not asking the District for payment, but was asking for its help in getting the hospital to pay.
Morgan said several potential operators have been at the property doing “confidential due diligence.” He declined to say how many have visited but said it is a “growing number.
Part of HMP’s services include turnarounds and interim management. As a part of that Morgan said he is working on improving efficiency. He said there has been “right-sizing” and as an example cited a 40 percent reduction in administration. He also reported the hospital is seeing an increase in patient visits and stays.
“We are seeing sicker patients, but with fewer patient days,” he said. “We are not where some other hospitals are in efficiency, but we are going in the right direction.”
In the night’s major action, directors unanimously adopted a tax rate of 0.1187 per $100 valuation to fund a budget of $8.8 million, also approved.
The vote, taken at the regular monthly meeting at Huntsville Memorial Hospital, amounts to a decrease from the previous rate of 0.1254. Ralph Beatty, district administrator, said an increase in tax valuations and new construction will allow the district to operate with the lower tax rate.
Director Dr. David Toronjo questioned some items in the proposed budget, including $300,000 for legal fees.
“That seems like a lot,” he said. He had questioned attorney fees earlier in the meeting.
Board Chair Anne Carr Woodard said uncertainties about the need for legal advice as the District works through the issues with the hospital corporation was driving the costs.
“We just don’t know what to expect during this period,” she said. She said that uncertainty was also driving a $400,000 allocation for consultants.
Those were not the only uncertainties in the budget, given the current fiscal crisis with the hospital. Beatty said “We aren’t like the Federal government. Just because its appropriated doesn’t mean we have to spend it.”
Rich Heiland, former publisher of the Huntsville Item and owner of Free Press publications, LLC, a reporting/writing firm working with media, has been a reporter, editor and publisher at several daily papers. He was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University. He can be reached email@example.com or 936-293-0293.