Tavares, FL Oct. 2, 2016 by Vance Jochim, FiscalRangers.com
Oct. 4, 2016 Update: A link to the video of this meeting is further down.
Members of the Lake County Republicans voted last week on Sept 27 to support a resolution recommending voters vote NO on a Nov. 8 ballot issue asking voters to "renew" a forty year old, 1 mill property tax for TEN years which is levied by the North Lake County Hospital District (NLCHD). The tax is then paid to two local hospitals and five clinics for "indigent care".
If the tax is renewed for the next 10 years, taxpayers would be locked into paying at least $100-million without ability to reduce it if there is an economic downturn. The overall tone of the voting (I was there and made a video - see below) was that the hospitals receive tax exempt status in turn for absorbing the cost of indigent care, and this is an excess subsidy that should be discontinued after forty years of existence.
We have written numerous times about this special district in North Lake County (FL), including the original efforts by local activist Marilyn Bainter, and FL Rep. Larry Metz in their efforts to reform the District and force the first ever referendum vote on whether to continue the District and the tax.
The purpose of the tax is to collect about $10-million in property taxes (at current valuations) every year based upon a 1 mill rate, and give most of it ($3.6-million each) to the two major hospitals in the area (Waternman and Leesburg) as well $700,000 to Lifestream Behavioral Center and a remaining $1.1-million split among five local medical clinics. The purpose is to subsidize the costs for indigent care, and a reform law passed several years ago tightened oversight of the spending and reporting.
The proposed resolution was written by FL Rep. Larry Metz, who was instrumental in passing the earlier "local" reform law ( Chapter 2012-258, Laws of Florida) that also required, for the first time in 40 years, that voters could vote to renew the tax (or not renew it) every 10 years. That vote takes place this Nov. 8 on the general election ballot for voters located in North Lake County (Howey in the Hills and north).
A public forum was held at the Sept. 27 meeting, with the CEO's of the two major hospitals speaking for support of the renewal, and FL Rep. Metz, and Mark Fisher (a member of the Lake County Republican Party Board) speaking in favor of voting NO to turn down the renewal.
Update Oct. 4, 2016: I made a video of the forum which is HERE.
Note: The 2012 reform law required much better oversight and audit reports to ensure the funds actually were for specific indigent care cases, and in my observation, that criteria has been met. Additionally, the law required a website (see below) which now exists, but I consider it to be unorganized. The other major requirement of the law was to allow a voter referendum, and that is what this article discusses and it IS on the Nov. ballot. VJ
Generally, the arguments FOR the renewal of the tax by the two CEO's included:
- The need for the hospitals and clinics to continue the level of care they have provided to date. Without the revenues, they would have to cut back services.
- If the tax is discontinued, the level of health care available in Lake County will drop.
- Proponents believe a 1 mill tax is very small and most taxpayers should pay it.
- Discussion of various patients who support the renewal.
The arguments for voting NO and discontinuing the tax (and existence of the special district) by Rep. Metz and Mark Fisher included:
- Forty years ago the funds were needed to help the original hospitals be constructed but now both hospitals show internal profits, or more revenues than expenses.
- The hospitals are TAX-EXEMPT organizations with private boards. They get the tax exempt status by agreeing to absorb all the costs of indigent care in the county. By getting this separate subsidy, they are essentially "double dipping" and getting tax funds for expenses they agreed to absorb in order to be tax exempt. After 40 years, it is time to end the subsidies.
- Rejection of the renewal would mean local government could review alternative methods of dealing with indigent care, such as subsidizing only the clinics.
- The Florida law defining the North Lake Hospital District set a cap of 1 mill on collected taxes, and the Board has never once in 40 years voted to use a tax roll back rate or reduce the maximum millage rate allowed, even in years such as 2006-2007 when collections were about $16-million. There is no set formula to specify how the millage rate is collected.
- The six member board has always been controlled by the two hospitals. If a reformer tries to run for the elected, non-paid positions, the hospitals outspend them to get their choice on the board. So the Board members always are pre-screened to be people who support the tax and setting it at the maximum every year. Just this last week, on Sept. 29, the Board met and once again voted to keep the tax at the maximum 1-mill rate without consideration of a lower or roll back rate. This board has refused to pay to have videos made of their board meetings to improve transparency, even though they meet at the Lake County Commissioner chambers and the operator is already there running the sound system (there is an official audio recording made by the Court Clerk's Board Support office). (This blog author thus makes videos, as described below).
- Some voters believe in the subsidies for various reasons, but it is not fair to vote that all taxpayers be taxed for this "corporate welfare" subsidy when other taxpayers may need the funds for other family priorities. Supporters have the alternative to give funds to the foundations run by the hospitals and clinics and should do that rather than passing a mandatory 1-mill tax on all property owners (including businesses).
The official website of the North Lake County Hospital District is HERE. The earlier boards refused to create a website for meeting agendas, minutes, audit reports, etc. until legislative reform was enacted in 2012 due to efforts of Rep. Metz and Marilyn Bainter. That law required the creation of the website, but in our opinion, it was always disorganized and not very user friendly.
We will publish more on this issue in the future. And watch for links to the video.
Our recommendation is that voters should vote NO on renewing this special taxing district after 40 years. Stop using legislation to take money from all residents to subsidize profitable local hospitals for another 10 years, which would cost taxpayers at least $100-million over the ten years.
Voters should expect a wave of emotion driving mailed flyers, presentations and ads from the hospitals who do not want to give up this taxpayer subsidy. Some have already been mailed out. The taxpayer opponents have no funding for mailers or flyers, so voters need to educate themselves.