Dave Rogers / For The Record

A petition for a hospital district for Orange County has finally made its way to Commissioners’ court.

The agenda for the Tuesday, Sept. 19 commissioners’ court meeting includes: “Discussion and possible action regarding the hospital district and possibly setting a place, date, and time for a hearing to consider the hospital district petition.”

Tuesday’s agenda also includes final votes adopting the 2017-18 county budget along with the 2017 county tax rate.

The creation of a hospital district has been a hot topic since early in 2017, not long after Baptist Hospital of Southeast Texas announced on Dec. 13, 2016 that it was closing its Orange emergency room. Turns out community leaders were working behind the scenes to attract new hospital services at least since Baptist eliminated in-patient care in 2015.

Their conclusion was the county needed a hospital district of its own to attract a healthcare facility that would attract doctors. That would most likely require county residents to pay a new tax.

The petition proposes a cap of 18 cents per $100 valuation on the tax, or $180 on a $100,000 home, or $15 per month, less than dinner for two. The petition calls for the district to be county-wide and run by a five-member board, with members serving two-year terms.

Orange County has been the largest county and Orange the largest city in Texas without a full-service hospital since 2015.

This is reportedly the fourth version of the petition to be prepared but the first to be approved by the Texas Secretary of State.

Commissioners on Tuesday are expected to set a date for a hearing to consider the petition. At the future hearing, commissioners are expected to set an election date.

County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton said Friday night that it was too late to add the hospital district question to the ballot for the Nov. 7 Constitutional Amendment Election; a special hospital district election would likely be scheduled in December.

The first board would be appointed by commissioners, to serve until an election on the first Saturday in May. Five new board members would then be elected, with three serving two-year terms, the other two one-year terms. Elections would be held every May, with two board members being elected every odd year, and three board members elected every even year.

The district board would determine the tax rate for the district, up to 18 cents per $100 value.

By law, if this hospital district election does not result in a majority of votes cast in favor of the hospital district, another election, based on another petition, could not be held for a year.

The proposed 2017-18 budget presented July 31 was for $50.8 million, $1 million less than 2016-17. The proposed tax rate is 54.4 cents per $100 value, same as it’s been the past four years.

A half-dozen taxpayers, speaking at a Friday night tax rate hearing, asked the county to lower the tax rate because of current and expected future hardships caused by Hurricane Harvey, a 500-year flood event that pushed 50-plus inches of rain and water from the Neches and Sabine Rivers into approximately 70 percent of the county’s 36,000 residences.

Many at the hearing attended because of confusion caused by a social media post that said the county intended to raise taxes 10.33 percent. The confusing text on the agenda for the meeting, a legally required disclaimer that’s part of the Legislature’s “Truth in Taxation” law, said Commissioners’ Court’s proposal would “increase tax revenues from properties on the tax roll in the preceding tax year by 10.33 percent.”

That refers to the amount of additional money the county can raise by keeping the same rate as last year, 54.4 cents/$100, because tax values have gone up. Without raising the tax rate, the proposed budget shows a total of $31.4 million in property tax revenues, compared to $28.8 million last year.

After that explanation by County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton, speakers focused their discontent on the Orange County Appraisal District.

Members of the court said they had no control over the composition of the five-member Appraisal District board, and two of them, Jody Crump and Barry Burton, told citizens to contact State Rep. Dade Phelan and support his efforts to pass a bill requiring appraisal district members to be elected by the citizens. That bill never came to a vote in the 2017 Legislative session.

In fact, the five OCAD board members are appointed by a vote of the 19 taxing entities (county, cities, schools, etc.) for which OCAD works. Each of the 19 is allowed to nominate one person and, according to the Appraisal District Director’s Manual found online, “the number of votes to which each unit is entitled is determined by a calculation that takes into account a taxing unit’s share of the total dollar amount of property taxes imposed in the CAD.”

That gives Orange County the most votes of any entity. The elections take place in odd-numbered years, with the votes due in by Dec. 15. The new slate of board members — the five nominees who receive the most votes — are announced Dec. 31.

Commissioner John Gothia mentioned that court members had spent several days this week taking a final post-Harvey look at the budget and doing last-minute trimming.

“We had a pretty good plan in place until this hit,” he said, “so we are going to have to make some adjustments.”