It has been a challenging few weeks for the West Volusia Hospital Authority.
The authority, which collects taxes to fund and manage programs that provide health care for poor people, recently voted to kick a member off of its Citizens Advisory Committee for allegedly violating Florida’s Sunshine Law.
The Hospital Authority also got turned down for a tax exemption from DeLand’s Downtown Community Redevelopment Agency, which would have been worth more than $58,000 a year for the Hospital Authority.
And, the recent tumult comes on the heels of the death in March of longtime Commissioner Kathie Shepard.
Three of the five hospital commissioners voted May 16 to remove Brian Soukup from the Citizens Advisory Committee, which helps the Hospital Authority decide which agencies to give money to.
Soukup, a former Deltona city commissioner, ran in 2018 for a seat on the West Volusia Hospital Authority board, but was eliminated in the primary. That left Shepard and Michael Ray in the race, and Shepard won in the general election in November. She died four months later; former Hospital Authority Commissioner Voloria Manning was appointed to replace her.
Three Hospital Authority seats were contested in the 2018 election, and each of the races boiled down to a referendum on Hospital Authority spending.
The contests were, generally, each between a candidate who argued that the Hospital Authority was too costly to taxpayers and too liberal in funding health care initiatives, and another candidate generally happy with the status quo.
Only one anti-spending candidate won: John Hill, a critic of the Hospital Authority who advocated dissolving it during his campaign.
As a commissioner, Hill appointed Soukup to the Citizens Advisory Committee, and, at a meeting in May, Soukup asked pointed questions of several nonprofit groups that had requesting funding.
Soukup also raised questions about whether undocumented immigrants were being served through the Hospital Authority’s Health Card program. As of June 2019, some 1,700 people had the Health Card, which gives low-income residents who qualify access to inexpensive medical care and prescription drugs.
Fourteen groups and programs — including The Neighborhood Center of West Volusia, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, the HIV-prevention group Rising Against All Odds and others — requested funding this year.
One applicant was Hispanic Health Initiatives, which provides health prevention and education services. Soukup took issue with the fact that HHI received all of its funding from the Hospital Authority, and noted the group’s name suggests it might discriminate against non-Hispanic people.
A representative from HHI explained the organization wanted “the Hispanic community to know they speak their language, but they treat all races,” according to the minutes of the meeting.
Some members of the committee felt Soukup’s questioning went too far.
After the meeting, Citizens Advisory Committee Chair Elmer Holt sent an email to Eileen Long of Dreggors, Rigsby and Teal, who does administrative work for the authority, apologizing to the WVHA board members for some of Soukup’s conduct.
“At times there existed a lack of decorum and control for which I deeply regret,” part of the email reads. “For that, I offer my sincerest apologies to the board, my fellow CAC members, and to the agency representatives in attendance.”
Long forwarded the email to the members of the WVHA board and CAC.
Soukup is alleged to have breached the Sunshine Law when he sent back a reply to the entire board at once. The Sunshine Law prohibits two or more members of the same board from discussing in private any matter the body could take action on in the future, including via email.
Only Hill spoke against Soukup’s removal at the May 16 meeting. He argued that the board should have notified the public and Soukup of the proposed removal, and should have given Soukup a chance to speak in his defense.
Hill left the meeting before the vote on Soukup’s ouster.
Some members of the CAC and WVHA board took issue with some allegations contained in Soukup’s email, as well. At the May 16 meeting, CAC members Lynn Hoganson and Jenneffer Pulapaka spoke out against Soukup’s behavior, according to the meeting minutes.
Also at that meeting, WVHA attorney Ted Small left the dais to speak as a citizen, and to take issue with Soukup’s allegation that Small had received more than $500,000 annually to serve as the authority’s legal counsel.
The Hospital Authority budgets $70,000 each year for legal expenses, and Small said he only recalled one occasion when he maxed out the budget. He went on to say that he had referred the matter to his own attorney, to explore whether Soukup’s remarks constituted defamation.
The matter dragged into the WVHA board’s June 20 meeting, with several people from the public coming to speak.
Jeff Brower, a former candidate for the Volusia County Council, said Soukup and Hill were the only ones asking penetrating questions of organizations requesting funding from the authority.
“In the middle of Brian’s questioning, he was summarily shut down,” Brower said.
He urged the board to reinstate Soukup, and to “join him in providing oversight.”
Another member of the public, Phyllis Stauffenberg, said she had known Soukup for more than 10 years, and said he “does checks and balances for everything he does, and he does it well.”
“I can assure you Brian is not a rabble-rouser,” she said.
On the other hand, CAC member Lynn Hoganson recalled the fateful CAC meeting, and reflected on the uncivil tone.
“The meeting I was in, I felt there were a lot of insults being hurled around,” she said.
At the authority’s June 20 meeting, Hill continued to defend Soukup and his questioning of agencies requesting funding.
“From an agency’s perspective, if they don’t want to answer questions about taxpayer dollars, then they really have no business asking about taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Hill said that, unlike the other commissioners, he was “at the full CAC meeting,” and that “people were very pleased about the questions being asked.”
He went on to say that the board’s move to remove Soukup in May was “very well orchestrated, inappropriately orchestrated.”
Soukup said he doesn’t believe his actions were a violation of the Sunshine Law, based on his experience as a former elected official.
He accused some of the other members of the WVHA board and CAC of dodging the issues he brought up over funding for organizations requesting taxpayer money.
“Instead of them owning up to some of the issues I brought forward, they said I’m a racist,” he said. “… As soon as you start asking accountability questions, they don’t want to hear it.”
Soukup said many of the organizations that recieve money from the WVHA do no outside fundraising, and that some provide duplicative services.
“They know right now a lot of those organizations are abusing taxpayer dollars,” he said. “In most case, they are duplicate services that are already being provided by the health department or other organizations.”
Dolores Guzman, another commissioner, maintained that what Soukup had done was a violation of the Sunshine Law.
Guzman noted that the email forwarded by Long had included a warning not to “reply all.”
“He, in turn, responded directly to Elmer and all of us, and then sent it to the news media. My interpretation was that was a violation,” Guzman said.
“I will argue that he did not [violate the Sunshine Law], regardless of a procedural aspect of an email that says not to ‘reply all,’” Hill responded.
He also lamented what he felt was the board’s unfair treatment of Soukup.
“I do not feel Mr. Soukup was treated fairly by this commission,” he said. “I would not have done that to any of our appointees regardless of if I like what they say.”
Undeterred, Hill said, in the future, he will appoint another CAC member who will ask tough questions.
DeLand denies tax break for Hospital Authority
In January, the DeLand City Commission voted to extend the life of the Downtown DeLand Community Redevelopment Agency, through Dec. 31, 2036. The Downtown CRA had been set to expire at the end of 2025.
A CRA is a tax-increment financing district; it generates money from taxes on increases in property values over the years, including the money that would normally go into the city budget, as well as taxes that would normally be paid to other agencies, like the Hospital Authority. DeLand’s Downtown CRA generates money that is used to fund improvements in Downtown DeLand, like street-scapes, and for the MainStreet DeLand Association, which puts on many events each year.
During the 2018 tax year, the CRA got $180,291 from DeLand city taxes, $156,974 from Volusia County taxes, and $56,965 from the West Volusia Hospital Authority. The Hospital Authority requested an exemption from sharing its taxes with the CRA after the original 2025 expiration.
“I do not believe it is fair or honest for taxpayers or the West Volusia Hospital board to continue levying taxes taxpayers think is being used for indigent health care, when in fact a significant amount of the health care is being siphoned off to the Downtown CRA,” said Judy Craig, chair of the Hospital Authority board.
WVHA attorney Ted Small pointed out that the Florida Legislature passed a law in 2016 that would allow DeLand to grant the exemption. The law applies only to districts created after July 1, 2016, but Small argued that it would be fair to apply it to existing districts, like the West Volusia Hospital Authority.
At its June 17 meeting, the City Commission was not receptive.
DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar brought up the idea of designating a portion of funds paid into the CRA to support indigent health care or homelessness issues, as a compromise. But City Attorney Darren Elkind expressed concern about allocating future tax revenue to a specific purpose.
Commissioner Kevin Reid asked why the WVHA had asked for an exemption only from the Downtown DeLand CRA, rather than the Spring Hill CRA. Small replied that the goals of the Spring Hill CRA, which has programs that aim to eliminate poverty in the Spring Hill area, are more closely aligned with the WVHA.
In the end, the WVHA walked away empty-handed, apart from an invitation to ask again in a couple of years.
“I guess the consensus is to thank you for coming and bringing it to our attention, but at this time, we’re not willing to engage in a discussion,” Apgar said. “But we’d certainly entertain it at a future date.”