A government agency tasked with providing medical care for about 1,600 of West Volusia’s poorest residents recently adopted a new budget and lowered its property-tax rate.
The move wasn’t enough to satisfy some of the West Volusia Hospital Authority’s detractors, who claim the agency overpays for medical services and doesn’t do enough oversight on nonprofit groups it funds.
Much of the unease stems from the 49-percent tax increase the authority enacted in 2017.
At its Sept. 26 meeting, the Hospital Authority voted 3-1 (with one member absent) to adopt an ad valorem tax rate of 1.9080, or about $1.91 per $1,000 of taxable value.
That’s down from last year’s 2.1751 mills, and about 5.6 percent lower than the rolled-back rate of 2.0204 mills.
The rolled-back rate is the millage rate that would give the agency the same amount of revenue it collected this year, not counting new revenue from construction.
The taxes will go toward funding the agency’s $19.6 million budget.
Some of the Hospital Authority’s detractors are also still unhappy over the authority’s May decision to remove a member of its Citizens Advisory Committee. That committee helps the Hospital Authority decide which agencies to fund.
Brian Soukup, a former Deltona city commissioner who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Hospital Authority board in 2018, was removed from the CAC after it was alleged he had violated Florida’s Sunshine Law.
Some claim, however, that the real reason for Soukup’s removal had to do with the pointed questions he asked of several nonprofit groups that had requested funding.
Jeff Brower, a DeLeon Springs resident and former candidate for the Volusia County Council, spoke at the Sept. 26 budget hearing. While he praised the reduction in the millage rate, he excoriated the board for removing Soukup.
“He attempted to ask some questions, and for that effort, he was summarily shut down and told that this was not the place to ask those questions,” Brower said. “I’ve said it before to this board, and I’m going to repeat it: If that’s not the place … to ask those questions and to do due diligence on the money you’re spending, which is all of our money, it’s taxpayer money … then this board should not even exist.”
Brower also blasted the board for using taxpayer money to provide health care to indigent residents who are undocumented immigrants.
“Let’s drive this rate down even more, and save every taxpayer in Volusia County some money,” he said. “You’re doing important work, you’re doing hard work, I’m not disputing that at all. But we need to focus on the hardworking taxpayers of Volusia County who need our help.”
The Hospital Authority’s enabling act, codified in state law, requires the agency to serve all residents of West Volusia who qualify for its services, not just all citizens or legal residents. The Hospital Authority can’t choose to deny services to undocumented immigrants, according to the agency’s attorney Ted Small.
DeBary resident Gary Crews echoed concerns about the board providing services to undocumented immigrants, and also criticized Soukup’s removal. He noted that many Florida counties don’t have hospital authorities.
“Maybe it’s time we take a look, like a lot of the other counties of the state of Florida have … the rest of the state seems to be doing OK without,” he said.
Hospital Authority Commissioner John Hill, a physician, cast the lone dissenting vote on the new tax rate.
“I have a problem, as an elected official, with many of the recipients of the tax dollars. The commission is not blinded to this,” he said. “We have a duplication of services. We have services where … 95 percent of their budget is … the dollars that we allot them from this board.”
Hill also said the Hospital Authority is overpaying for primary-care services.
“I saw 45,000 patients last year in my two offices,” he said. “My collections with that were about $1.4 million.”
Commissioner Dolores Guzman, who presided over the meeting because Chair Judy Craig was absent, sympathized with the residents who came and spoke out, but said the board had done all it could have reasonably done to lower the millage rate.
“I understand what you’re saying, and I wish that we could lower the amount more than what we did, but unfortunately, at this time, my statement is that I don’t see how we could do that,” she said. “Hopefully … we will see lower millage rates in the future.”
She also addressed the citizenship question.
“Some don’t agree with us serving the illegals, like you want to call them, or people that are here without citizenship,” Guzman said. “Only about 10 percent of our membership is from residents of those communities. Our legislation says that we look only at where they reside … we don’t look at citizenship. That comes from the state.”
Guzman said if people want that rule changed, they would have to ask the Florida Legislature to change the Hospital Authority’s enabling legislation.