Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Hospital district tax, Bitcoin noise among topics discussed at Town Hall

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Hood County residents now have a better understanding of local issues following a Community Town Hall hosted by Precinct 2 Commissioner Nannette Samuelson and Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle May 16.

While many topics were discussed, the two most pressing county issues involved the Hood County hospital district tax and the noise emanating from the Wolf Hollow Power Plant.

HOSPITAL DISTRICT TAX

Since the beginning of 2023, the Hood County Hospital District board of directors has discussed the need to review, evaluate and determine the necessity of implementing a Hood County hospital tax for maintenance and operations.

Hood County residents have not paid a hospital district tax since 1996. At that time the tax rate was 15 cents per $100 of valuation according to the Hood County Appraisal District.

Residents have not had to pay this tax due to a lease agreement negotiated with Hospital Corporations of America in 1996. The agreement called for HCA to pay $15 million to the HCHD to lease the hospital from 1996-2026 with an option to renew the lease for an additional 10 years for $1,000. Community Health Systems, Inc. is now the owner of the lease agreement.

The HCHD is responsible for paying for indigent care as well as jail inmate care as required by Texas law. Indigent care is a program that helps low-income Texans who don’t qualify for other state or federal health care programs get free access to health care services. Some services include immunizations, medical screening services, annual physicals, inpatient and outpatient hospital visits, laboratory and radiology, and more.

“The HCHD is legally obligated to care for Hood County legal indigents; however, Texas state law does not require HCHD to cover health care and meds (including doctors and nurses) for Hood County inmates,” HCHD President Christy Massey said during a regular meeting April 26. “Hood County Commissioners Court placed the inmate medical care charges on HCHD in 1996. Unless the current commissioners court revokes the inmate coverage by HCHD and pays inmate coverage from the county funds, HCHD will run out of funding by mid-year 2025. It should be clear to the HCHD board that the only way to meet the state of Texas mandate for legal indigents and the commissioners court mandate on inmates is the implementation of an HCHD tax on Hood County citizens and business property.”

While a tax rate has not yet been set, the HCHD board has discussed the possibility of implementing one of three options: taxing a penny, a penny-and-a-half or two pennies — though the tax could end up being higher, if one is passed. One penny would result in residents paying $10 per $100,000 property valuation, a penny-and-a-half would result in $15 dollars per $100,000 and two pennies would equal $20 dollars per $100,000. A 1 cent tax would bring $1 million into the hospital district while a 2 cent tax would bring in $2 million.

"Many years ago, the district worked out a deal with the hospital where they had a large sum of money, and they were able to not have a tax, so we've been running on interest for 25 years now,” Eagle said. “The problem is we're running out of money. So, why are we talking about the tax now? Because we have to fund the difference. We're set up with a dilemma now in how are we going to finance the hospital district. EMS needs help. Their issue is the same as the district is, so we're kicking around the idea of the hospital tax to be put back as a separate tax.”

Samuelson then clarified a rumor going around social media that the tax rate would fund the hospital, which she confirmed is not true.

"This is separate and apart from the actual hospital,” she said. “This is the mandate that the state of Texas puts on counties to care for indigent, low-income folks. This is not funding the hospital, so I wanted to make sure that was clear. This tax does not have anything to do with the financing, or the income of the actual hospital. This is just to fund indigent care.”

Eagle then explained that the only way the county can continue to provide indigent care is to place a tax rate on the Republican ballot in November.

"We've been kicking around the idea of 2 cents. Right now, your county taxes about 43 cents, I believe, so this concept is adding a few more cents on that,” he said. “If this bond fails, or the tax implementation fails in November, what are we going to do? Well, that's a good question, because I'm not real sure. The statutes that created this district do not have a dissolution arrangement in it, so we're going to have to go over our state legislature and ask them to add that provision to the statute that created this district to uncreate it, so that's one option. I don't see how we're going to exist otherwise, so we're in a dilemma right now.”

The other part of the equation, Eagle said, is EMS — another organization that also requires some type of funding in order to continue operation in Hood County.

Ricky Reeves, executive director of Texas EMS, explained that since the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, Texas EMS costs have skyrocketed. He said as a nonprofit organization, Texas EMS does not receive any subsidies.

"We're at the point now that for us to stay in business and continue to give you the support, like anybody else in the state of Texas, we're going to have to have some type of assistance,” Reeves said.

Prior to 1996, Texas EMS was operated by the HCHD, but after CHS took over the lease, Reeves said the hospital helped create its 501(c)(3) in 2002 — and that’s how Texas EMS has been running ever since.

"We're about one or two in the state of Texas that actually runs the way we do. Unfortunately, we cannot continue to do that,” he said. “Part of the mission of the hospital district is healthcare, so we've been working on this for a while. We've asked the hospital district to include us and Pecan (Plantation EMS) in subsidizing us to a degree.”

He also noted that it costs over $4 million a year to operate Texas EMS in Hood County and added that a 2 cent tax would equate to about $1 million a year each for both Pecan Plantation EMS and Texas EMS.

Reeves then brought up how in January 2022, the No Surprises Act was passed, which prohibits balance billing for out-of-network, self-pay and uninsured patients from certain surprise medical bills.

"EMS was included in the last legislative session, which means that I can't balance bill you what your insurance pays, and what it costs,” he explained. “We used to bill the patient for the difference, if it was allowed by the insurance, but we can no longer do that. What that equates to me is about $350,000 a year that I'm no longer going to acquire, so between the Medicare and Medicaid we have, plus indigent care, our costs are rising, but our reimbursements are decreasing."

A member of the audience then asked Reeves if the county did approve a 2 cent tax rate, how much time would it buy before there would be a need for another increase. Reeves said it’s hard to tell.

"We don't know, because we don't know what the cost is going to be in the future. We don't anticipate a very big increase in that,” he said. “The 2 cents is going to be a little more than $2 million based on the value in the county, and we all feel that that's going to be enough money to cover us for quite a few years. But again, catastrophic events can happen, and we don't know what those might be.”

“This is up to you,” Eagle added. “You’re the voters, and information is going to be provided to you between now and November. That's not up to us. It's up to you. You're going to be the ones to decide whether this is something that you want to move forward with for yourself and your families or not. We're not laying a tax on you. It's going to be something you can vote for and decide for yourself. Frankly, I don't think Uber is going to do EMS work, so I would consider that when you're looking at this because Mr. Reeves is going to need some help.”

BITCOIN NOISE

Another important topic during the Town Community Hall focused on the noise complaints in Precinct 2 due to a cryptocurrency data center on Hayworth Highway.

For more than a year, several community members have voiced their concerns regarding the fan noise emanating near the Wolf Hollow plant.

“I don't know how many servers are out there, but there's a lot a lot of servers and they're cooled by fans and those fans make a lot of noise," Samuelson said. “They run 24/7. They don't stop. It's a low frequency, ongoing noise and it's not just irritating. There are studies that show that continued exposure to low frequency noise is harmful to the human body and also to animals as well. But we need people to get involved, and we need people to be organized. We need a voice that is organized.”

Samuelson said she has also been asked by several residents why the Hood County Commissioners Court hasn’t resolved the noise issue. She explained that counties cannot adopt ordinances — only cities can.

"What we have to fall back on is the noise ordinance that's in the penal code,” she said. “Constable (John) Shirley has been issuing citations for months. He hasn't stopped issuing citations when the noise level is over 85 decibels.”

She recommended that anyone affected by the noise should come together and take legal action against the owner of the Bitcoin plant, Marathon Digital Holdings. She also encouraged residents to email state Rep. Shelby Slawson or state Sen. Brian Birdwell.

"We have a legislative session coming up in January. There are resolutions that have been put forward to address this noise issue and that's going to take legislation,” Samuelson said. “You can go to hearings about those legislations, and you can call your legislator, whether it's Shelby Slawson or Brian Birdwell, to say that you're in favor of this legislation and how it's impacting your life. Be specific. The main thing is to get organized and get involved.”

Samuelson also pointed out that residents can also call the Hood County non-emergency number, as every call is documented.

"Those calls are documented, and it's a record, so if the news media or some attorney somewhere wants to pull open records to say, ‘How bad is this?’ and they ask for all the calls, and there's two? Well, it's not a very big problem,” she said. “But if it's impacting you, you should call, and it will be documented. Most of all, don’t give up. It’s a long process, whether it’s a legal process or a legislative process."

After complaints that the low-frequency hum was causing migraines, hearing loss, ringing in ears, vertigo, nausea and behavioral issues in children, Marathon staff announced plans for mitigation that included hiring a community liaison to manage collaboration between the public and the company.

On March 29, Marathon let residents know about its seven-phase noise mitigation plan, which is outlined below:

Phase #1 involves shutting off the fans of idle units facing the road. This phase was expected to be complete by mid-April 2024.

Phase #2 — which has since been completed — referred to the hiring of Stacie Howell as Marathon’s new community liaisons, which was completed in March 2024.

Phase #3 involved moving eight containers to liquid cooling. This phase was estimated to be completed in April 2024.

Phase #4 includes installing vegetation and trees along the perimeter. The target was expected to break ground in spring 2024.

Phase #5 will consist of extending the perimeter barrier. Marathon is now evaluating length and location, and this is expected to break ground in August 2024.

Phase #6 involves improving fan technology. Marathon is now evaluating and designing the project and it is set to be complete in November 2024.

Phase #7 will be a continuation of Phase #3, as more containers will be transitioned to liquid cooling. This project is currently being evaluated and a target completion date has not yet been determined.

“They are working to try to eliminate the noise,” Samuelson said. “But if you all feel that that's not enough, and it's impacting your life, these are the options that you have.”

Eagle then pointed out that there is a civil legal route that residents can take regarding nuisance case law.

“As far as the county is concerned, our hands are tied, because we have no legal basis to go after them,” he said. “I mean, we can have people come in and have town halls like this and give people a voice to talk about it, but the county can't really do anything legal about it. What Commissioner Samuelson was giving us was just information and ideas but getting together and coming up with the pool of money or what have you, that's something to look at if you want to take it to the next level, because that may be your only avenue.”

One audience member said he did look into filing a lawsuit against Marathon, but that it would require anywhere from a $50,000 retainer to a $750,000 retainer just to get the process started. He also urged other residents to turn on their vacuum cleaner and leave it on for a length of time to get an idea of what the constant noise is like.

Another speaker said he had conducted an extensive amount of research on low-frequency noise. He said if someone lives near an airport, the airport is required to do sound mitigation — no more than 65 decibels of sound on average and 55 at night. He said near the Bitcoin plant, the sound is measuring at 75 decibels 24 hours a day. He added that the city of Fort Worth also received $33 million in grants to “protect the homes” at the tail end of the Perot Field Fort Worth Alliance Airport.

Resident Cheryl Shadden explained that individuals can now have their property appraisal re-evaluated and added that she has been keeping records of videos and data for her tax appraisal hearing coming up June 3.

“One of my neighbors has had their home for sale for over four months,” Shadden said. “They haven't had any viewings, they haven't had anybody come and look, and they've dropped the value of the house $100,000. Our property out there is worth nothing. We can't pick up and move, we can't sell, so what do we do?”

"That's some data that you can get records of, like here was the property value a year ago and here's what the house ended up selling for,” Samuelson said. “Those are real data points that you can use in your protest or in any other action you may want to take.”

Samuelson added that this situation needs to be a “focus effort.” She recommended that residents continue writing letters to the Hood County News, to Birdwell and to Slawson so their voices can be heard.

“You've got to get organized,” she said. “You've got to have a plan. Tell your story. If somebody doesn't believe that this is impacting people's health and their life, they just haven't heard your story. You don't need a study to know that it's impacting the peaceful enjoyment of your property."