DOUBLE SPRINGS - The vote was mixed among Winston County Commissioners to amend a resolution they passed last year redirecting both property tax mills being collected from county taxpayers, to the Health Care Authority of Haleyville and Winston County Alabama.
After some lengthy and somewhat heated discussion from a room of officials about the tax millage, Commissioner David Cummings made a motion to amend the resolution.
Commissioner Bobby Everett, who disapproved of the action, would not second the motion, so Commission Chairman Roger Hayes seconded the motion.
The vote passed on majority with Cummings and Hayes voting yes and Everett voting no.
Back in early 2018 amidst efforts to save Lakeland Community Hospital in Haleyville from closure, the commission voted along the same lines to approve two mills of additional property tax to be collected, one mill going to the commission and one mill going to the health care authority.
However, legal questions arose dating back to an original vote taken in 1965 in preparation for when Burdick West Memorial Hospital in Haleyville was preparing to open its doors, which took place four years later in 1969. That election in 1965, gave voters in Winston County the opportunity to approve a four-mill property tax during the planning stages of Burdick West Hospital, with the tax millage going to support the hospital.
The 2018 two-mill tax was passed by the commission, after they received an Alabama Attorney General’s opinion after questioning whether they could legally take the action to collect the tax. Everett at that time voted no on approving the tax, saying that the voters of the county needed to have the say in approving the millage, as was done in 1965. Hayes and Cummings voted yes, so the passage was official on a majority vote.
Cummings stressed the commission’s vote on April 29, to amend the resolution so both mills will go to the healthcare authority was a necessity in order to get any health clinics on the county’s east side.
The lack of health clinics on the county’s east side in places such as Arley and in the southern part of the county in Lynn has been a major subject of concern from officials in those areas.
Cummings, who represents District 2, also represents the county as a whole, he said.
“We need to be opening clinics on the east side. Until you put the money out there so you can use it, you can’t do anything,” Cummings pointed out.
“Right now there’s no money. Until we address the problem and get the money for the clinics, you are beating a dead horse,” he added.
Funding from the two mills of property tax has been in limbo over the past year due to a lawsuit filed in 2018 by resident Rusty Banks challenging the commission’s authority to make such a decision--to tax all of the taxpayers in the county for something, he claimed, would not benefit the,, only Haleyville. That lawsuit was settled and a summary judgment reached in favor of the commission.
Cummings noted he had been in communication with the mayors in his district, informing Lynn Mayor Jeff Stokes that a health clinic would come to Arley, but not to Lynn.
“I got my information at the last minute,” Stokes responded.
“The reason a lot of you got it at the last minute was because I hand delivered it to you,” noted Hayes,“because our attorneys hadn’t come up with how we needed to handle it.”
“This tax has not put anyone out of business. It is to help the whole county,” Cummings continued.
The new makeup of the hospital authority will be one seat from the commission, one member from the east side of the county, one doctor, two seats from Haleyville and one appointed seat, Cummings discussed.
“We don’t have any representation from the board until we put money in it,” Cummings reasoned. “When we put money in it, we’ll get representation on the board.”
“If it looks like there’s so much focus on the hospital and the City of Haleyville, we got word that Curae was closing the hospital as of Dec. 31, (2017). We had a little over 60 days,” stressed Judy Bittinger, chairman of the health care authority. “If the hospital had closed, we would not have been able to reopen it because of several different certification and licensing requirements.
“If you open a new hospital, you have to go through all of this,“ Bittinger continued.
Bittinger then referred to the Haleyville City Council passing a one percent sales tax, that has helped keep the hospital open the past year since the property tax millage funds were held up due to the lawsuit.
“So, the only thing that has kept the hospital open are the city taxes,” Bittinger further explained. “We’ve been waiting on the county taxes.”
Arley resident and State Representative Tim Wadsworth then noted the way the tax millage was to be spent under the original law was for other public health facilities.
“They did, but they didn’t look at the funding aspect of it,” responded Winston County Commission Attorney Hobby Manasco.
“We have two aspects under this litigation, one, (which) we’ve already litigated, was whether you could levy the tax. The county has won that aspect of it,” Manasco added. “Now we’ve got the funding, where does the hospital tax go?”
Holding up the resolution, Manasco then said, “It goes to the hospital.”
Manasco said the original Amendment 72 passed in 1965, indicated, “other public facilities,” but not the wording of the current resolution the commission was scheduled to pass at that meeting.
The commission voted at a previous meeting to seek an attorney general’s opinion on the wording of the resolution regarding the hospital tax millage.
That opinion as of press time has not yet been rendered.
“An attorney general’s opinion is not binding law,” spoke out attorney Jeff Mobley, representing the health care authority. “It is not law. It is merely the opinion of the attorney general. If there is litigation that ultimately decides that question, it’s the court order, not the attorney general’s opinion, that controls.
“Our problem is it has already been litigated and there is a final judgment on the question,” Mobley continued. “The final judgment is that it can only be spent through a hospital authority. It cannot be spent under Amendment 72 for other health care purposes.
“That’s why it is perfectly appropriate for a department of the hospital, i.e., a rural health clinic, to be positioned in Arley or Addison and work through a local doctor in a collaborative effort to provide health care through the hospital because it is a department of the hospital, which is the entity that can receive this particular tax,” Mobley continued.
Everett explained his reason for voting no.
The hospital in 1987 saved his life, Everett began. “I was thankful for that. I will always remember that,” he said.
Everett noted that he voted no because of a lack of balance between the amount of taxpayer money coming from District 1, which he represents, to the health care authority and the number of people from his district sitting on the health-care authority board making decisions on how to spend those taxpayer dollars.
“The reason I voted no was not to hurt the hospital,” Everett added. “The percentage of (taxpayer) money that is collected off the east (side) and the balance ratio needs to be taken into consideration.”
Everett added he did not realize he would get into the health care business as a county commissioner.
“I realize now we are,” he stated. “If we could have a legislative process where we vote again and decide fairly through a vote of the taxpayers of Winston County how the money is to be used fairly and across the board, then establish a board. That is what the people of Winston County want,” Everett continued.
“This vote is 50 years old, and that’s why I voted no...”
Manasco confirmed that the vote of the people of Winston County in 1965, known as Amendment 72, was a statewide amendment.
“We (the commission) don’t keep that hospital afloat,” Hayes said.
The commission’s decision to vote on amending the resolution they passed in 2018, to both mills of property tax going to the hospital authority would mean a continuation of funding so that health clinics could open on the east side of the county, Hayes and Cummings both agreed.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.