At sometimes it was a tense environment. 

More than 40 people came out to comment on the proposed Walker County Hospital District tax rate Monday night, as the local taxing agency laid out its plan to save Huntsville Memorial Hospital during a public hearing.

The room was split, with some residents questioning their confidence in the hospital district, while others supported the proposed decision and tax rate, with one saying that “if this city didn’t have a hospital, my property would be worthless.”

The hospital district is proposing a maximum 8% tax increase for its 2020 budget, which will generate an additional $509,000. The hospital district — which has served as the landlord of the hospital for many years — is expected to take over day-to-day operations of the hospital in a partnership with Community Hospital Corporation by November 1.

Walker County Hospital Corporation — the private non-profit organization currently responsible for the operation of Huntsville Memorial Hospital — is preparing to file bankruptcy after losing millions due to inflated salaries, alleged insurance fraud and failing attempts to establish a network of clinics.

“It took us two years to get rid of a bad operator … the hospital corporation didn’t have to work with us, and for the most part they refused too,” district chairperson Anne Karr-Woodard told a room of concerned citizens.

“We are all in agreement that we do need a hospital in Huntsville,” fellow hospital district board member David Toronjo said. “The operator (WCHC) took millions to fund all its network of clinics, which involved $14 million for an imaging center and $7.5 million to pay to its doctors organization. This board had no say so in that.

“The question we have to ask ourselves now is … Do we want to keep a hospital here or not? We hope that the taxpayers will support this hospital, but we have to demand transparency.”

Community Hospital Corporation had a short stint managing Huntsville Memorial Hospital, but officials said that this will be a more difficult task.

“CHC has been here before and turned this hospital around, so I have no reason to believe that the couldn’t do it again,” Toronjo added.

Included in the hospital district’s agreement will CHC will be the creation of a new joint-venture non-profit corporation, which will have two members from CHC and one from the hospital district. However, the local taxing agency will have veto power on any decisions outside of normal day-to-day operational proceedings.

The hospital district will also be expected to offer a revolving line of credit to help fund the new enterprise through the first four months, costing the taxing agency $20-$30 million.

“We are probably going to have to borrow some money, the question is how much are we going to have to borrow, and where is it going to come from,” hospital district attorney Joe Henderson said. “It may not succeed, but this board was elected to try and make this thing work. The problem right now is getting enough money.”

If the tax rate is approved during a meeting on September 25, the average property in Walker County — which is valued at $159,300 — will see roughly a $10 increase from this year’s hospital district taxes.

Next week’s meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. in the conference room of Huntsville Memorial Hospital.

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