A petition is making its way through the area in hopes of placing the future of the Liberty County Hospital District No. 1 on the ballot this November.
Organizers with a group known as Liberty County Moving Forward believe that voters in the area should vote to decide if that taxing entity should stay in existence.
“We, the undersigned, together with the signatories to the multiple counterparts to this petition, being at least 15% of the registered voters of the Liberty County Hospital District 1, hereby petition and request that an election be called and held within the boundaries of Liberty County Hospital District 1 for the purpose of dissolving Liberty County Hospital District 1 as provided for in section 286.102 – 286.106 of the Texas Health and Safety Code,” the petition reads.
Sarah Vickery, who is leading those efforts, along with Adam Spear and Brandon Sigle, believes the district is placing an undue and unnecessary burden on taxpayers.
Currently, there are 17,419 registered voters within the district, meaning petitioners need at least 2,613 registered voters to sign the petition within 180 days from the start, which began in March.
Once those signatures are collected, they must be submitted to the district for verification.
If the petition is valid and successful, LCHD No. 1 would have sixty days, according to state law, to call for an election to decide the district’s future.
“We just want the citizens to have an opportunity to vote whether to keep or dissolve the district because the district has done the job they set out to do and saved the hospital and are operating with a profit and no longer need our tax money,” Vickery continued, “just because the district goes away, does not mean the hospital goes away.”
That last point LCHD No. 1 President Bruce Stratton contends is inaccurate.
“The foremost thing that they are not really letting the public know is that if they were to eliminate the hospital district, in all probability, the hospital here would close within a short period of time,” Stratton continued, “because all of the different funds that we get from the government and various other agencies are through a hospital district. A hospital can’t receive those funds direct.”
It formed in 2005 with voters in Liberty, Hardin, and Hull-Daisetta ISDs, as well as the City of Dayton, approving the new district. A previous attempt to form the district with all of Dayton ISD had failed a year prior.
That district was designed to provide indigent healthcare based on Texas legislation passed in 1985 under the Indigent Health Care and Treatment Act, which is the mission of LCHD No. 1, approved by voters.
“Liberty County Hospital District’s purpose is to provide cost-effective indigent health care with passion, respect, and professionalism administered through its staff and elected board of directors,” according to the LCHD No. 1 website.
According to district information, between October 2019 to September 2021, the hospital district has had no more than 162 indigent eligible clients enrolled in any given month, dropping to as few as 115 in July 2021.
The district expanded its scope in 2010 when the board decided to save the Liberty Dayton Regional Medical Center, which had been poorly mismanaged and shuttered in 2009.
“When the hospital district was formed, some thought it was just for indigent care,” said Stratton in a 2010 press conference. “Some of us thought that it had a two-fold purpose of providing indigent care and saving the hospital.”
Under the board’s leadership, LDRMC was saved, and it has effectively operated in the black while improving facilities and expanding care options at the hospital.
Vickery believes the district has moved further away from its original purpose of helping the indigent and has utilized tax money to fund the hospital, which reported a profit of nearly $2 million last year while campaigning for a new hospital.
“I don’t think our government should be in the business of turning a huge profit, especially since they have not had an audit since 2018,” said Vickery.
Stratton contends that the hospital has been fortunate to operate with a profit margin but that the budget is planned each year with a shortfall in mind and that this would not be possible if not for the district.
“It’s an example of private versus the hospital district. The private people, both Frontier Healthcare and Baptist Hospital, they operated the hospital for a number of years and never made a profit. They went into the red every year,” Stratton continues, “we took over, and after they closed it, we were able to take over with the blessing of the IRS in 2009, and we have been in the black ever since.”
He also agreed that there had been delays on the 2019 audit due partly to issues outside the district’s hands.
“That was not an issue that was caused by the hospital district. That was the auditor simply dropping the ball, and we’ve been all over them. They’re right now telling us they are looking at a month to finish that one, and the others are well on their way, the 2020 and 2021,” said Stratton.
In November 2021, the district held a bond referendum asking taxpayers to fund a new Liberty hospital facility and a Dayton clinic at $43 million, along with a tax hike of nine cents for every hundred dollars, doubling the current rate.
Those proposals took a resounding defeat when voters rejected both propositions by over 70 percent.
“I think this was a clear message that the taxpayers don’t want to pay more taxes, especially those in Dayton that see the largest area growth and the real possibility of a future private hospital that isn’t funded with taxpayer money,” said Vickery
She points out that the district’s data shows no more than four new indigent applicants at any point between the previously mentioned timeline in the city of Dayton, which pays 34% of the district’s taxes.
“As a resident of Dayton, we are facing higher appraisals, higher utilities, higher costs at the grocery store and gas pump. I feel now is the time we spend our money where it needs to be spent and not duplicating efforts when the county indigent healthcare program can help residents find access to healthcare,” said Vickery.
During last November’s election, voters in Dayton overwhelmingly opposed the new hospital and clinic, with well over 750 voting against the props while just over 120 supported the measures.
Stratton believes the hospital provides a great service to Dayton right now, with an emergency room just minutes away from Dayton and the new HCA AIRLife team currently on standby 24/7 at LDRMC.
“There are a lot of things that this hospital and the clinic offer to the public. One, in particular, is the emergency room. There are over 800 people a month that go through that emergency room. Those people are from across the river, on both sides of the river and all over,” said Stratton.
The entire issue may come down to ideology and politics as organizers scrap to get the needed signatures. At the same time, hospital district officials continue their mission to provide healthcare to the area.
Vickery encourages anyone wanting more information on the petition to visit LCMovingForward.com or on Facebook at Liberty County Moving Forward. Vickery said they could also be found at government meetings and businesses around the community with the petition available.
For more information on LCHD No. 1, visit lchd1.org.