A version of this article will appear in the Frio-Nueces Current on August 25, 2016.
La Salle County Commissioners Court takes
temperature of public opinion.
The La Salle County Commissioners Court hosted a public hearing on the evening of Thursday August 18th at the Alexander Convention Center in Cotulla. The topic was the proposed hospital and new tax district that would accompany the facility. Tax burdens, staffing difficulties, and transparency took center stage.
County Judge Joel Rodriguez opened the hearing with an explanation of the legislative process. The La Salle County Commissioners do not vote on whether the hospital item goes to ballot, he said. A petition came before the court for a potential $40 million dollar facility with an accompanying taxing district that could collect up to 75 cents per hundred dollars of property value. The Commissioners Court performed their lawful duty to check and approve the document. After they found it to be in order, the commissioners started the obligatory process to set a date for a county-wide vote, a process that includes the public hearing. County Judge Rodriguez emphasized that the Commissioners Court is “not the entity that decides whether or not it goes on the ballot.”
The first public comment came from Alfredo Zamora Jr., executive director of South Texas Rural Health Services. He recalled promises made during the oil boom that never came to fruition, many of which echo the same promises made by a potential hospital.
“The oil boom came to Cotulla and now it’s gone. For a little while, the economy blossomed and bloomed, and everybody enjoyed the ride… We were going to grow and we were going to have to build new schools because of the population that was coming in.” According to Zamora, the oil boom created a cost of living that did not adjust after the bust.
“When the boom was here. everything went up. The food, the rent, utilities. Well now the boom is gone and guess what. Has the cost gone down? There’s no adjustment to balance the scales.”
Zamora also used his personal experience running the STRHS clinics to explain the difficulty in staffing qualified medical professionals for such an ambitious project based far away from major cities. “They talk about 150 professionals of different types… Every recruiter that we hire, every provider that we bring in, doctor, dentist- costs us from fifteen to twenty thousand dollars. Does that guarantee that the individual is going to stay? No. The person that’s going to make the money? The recruiter.”
However, there is a medical need that has to addressed according to Zamora. “We do need urgent care. But it doesn’t take an elaborate project and it’s not that costly. Something that the community and the governmental entities can handle… You’re talking about investing at the most 2 million dollars instead of this debt that going to overshadow us for years to come.”
Encinal City Attorney Juan Caballero continued Zamora’s opposition, expressing frustration that his city’s residents were largely left out of the discussion even though they would be taxed with the rest of the county.
“The things that concerns us is that this project was dreamt up in 2013. We found out about it three or four weeks ago. They didn’t include us in any of the planning… We’re told that the parameters given to the people that were conducting the studies were in proximity to the city of Cotulla, so we weren’t even considered.” Caballero noted that for the citizens of Encinal, there is already a hospital in Laredo, almost equidistant from the proposed hospital in Cotulla. Even though “the facilities in Laredo will be larger and more sophisticated, some of us still travel to San Antonio or Houston depending on our needs.” As Zamora spoke about the tax burden in Cotulla, Caballero addressed Encinal specifically. “We’re very low income. Some of the residents struggle to pay their taxes as it is. We’re talking about increasing their taxes during a time when all properties are losing value and all taxing entities are scrambling to meet their budgets.”
Only one citizen stepped up to speak on behalf of the proposed hospital: E.T. Page, owner of a Cotulla-based airport. As someone who encounters business interests on a regular basis, Page communicated information on their behalf. “I see businesses fly in all the time, looking for a place to put a yard or a local office. And I’m talking big companies like Chesapeake, BHP, or Strike that have chosen to go elsewhere because we don’t have the infrastructure that’s needed. A hospital is one of the things on their list that they’re looking for.”
Page also offered an opinion about what the cost will be, finessing what was officially submitted. “The facility, I’m sure, will not start at 40 million dollars. That was a number that was presented but that was for everything in the world, not a realistic facility. Just like the 75 cents is not what will be presented, I’m sure. It just wouldn’t work. And if it’s such a bad idea, why do we have two hospitals already interested in coming here?”
After Page, Mike Whitwell was the last citizen to offer public comments, expressing frustration that the ballot process could not be stopped by the public hearing, and adding to the voices opposed to the hospital on the basis of cost. Once the public was finished, the county commissioners took their opportunity to speak. The difficulty in obtaining detailed information became the theme of the rest of the evening.
Precinct #1 Commissioner Abel Gonzalez was direct in his opposition, citing tax reasons. “I just want to go on record saying that I’m against the district… This was done the wrong way, in my opinion. When the city first started talking about this, they never came to us. I first found out about it from a flyer. I’ve been a commissioner for three and a half years. I want a hospital here for myself and for my family, but this is not the way to do it.”
Three of the hospital board members were in attendance and Precinct #3 Commissioner Rene Benavidez asked them directly if the budget questions were ever discussed at their meetings. “Everything was,” board member Jerry Farrell answered from his seat in the audience.
County Judge Rodriguez made his frustration clear. “Our attorneys asked for that. If they didn’t provide it, then they violated the Open Meetings Act, which is a criminal act.”
Farrell took the opportunity to clear up some of the process. “40 million dollars is not the set price for the hospital,” he said. “The next board decides what they want. The board that got together just decided on certain items we wanted on there, so we can’t say it’s going to cost 40 million when the next board can change it.”
The meeting adjourned shortly after, but some of the finger-pointing continued. A few of the public hearing participants were accused of bias based on positive or negative effects the hospital would have on the revenues of their own businesses.
Encinal City Manager Velma Davila offered a community defense of South Texas Rural Health Services, however.
“We have a South Texas Rural clinic that’s open every Tuesday. That’s where some of our citizens go to get medical help because some of them don’t have the ability to go out of town to another doctor. They take advantage of this free clinic that’s helping our community. We don’t want that to be gone because they need that. Where are our citizens going to go? Those that don’t have a vehicle, those that don’t have transportation, they don’t have insurance or money to pay. This is where they get free service. This clinic has been wonderful to our city… You’re going to tax our citizens that are already losing some property, their home because they can’t pay taxes. They can’t afford a lot of things. That’s what the city is there for. Their well-being.”
County Judge Joel Rodriguez summed up the stream of information about the hospital. “What I’ve been hearing is ‘approve it, build it, get the money and they will come.’ It’s not that easy.” After the hearing, he added that a proper list of benefits and comprehensive economic analysis to illustrate return on taxpayer investment would make the hospital more attractive to the public. “Show me the jobs. Show me on paper. You can’t just hit the tax dollars. There has to be income that comes in from private pay, Medicare and Blue Cross, but you’re going to have a large number of uncollectibles as well. But I haven’t seen an analysis. These experts that are so great- where is their analysis? Show it to me.”
The La Salle County Commissioners Court will convene to set a date for a county-wide vote on the proposed hospital and new taxing district.
–written by Jose Asuncion
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