Houston County Commissioners will consider passing a property tax increase at their next meeting on Monday at the request of the Houston County Healthcare Authority to benefit Southeast Health.

If approved by the commission, a special property tax benefitting Southeast Health would be increased by 1.5 mills beginning in the tax year ending on September 30, 2024. The rate on the special tax is currently set at 2.5 mills, and the proposed increase would set the mill rate at 4, the limit set on the special tax passed by Houston County voters in 1949.

Houston County currently has a mill rate of 17.5. Its total combined state, county and municipal rate is 34.5, according to the Houston County Revenue Department.

The mill rate is the amount of tax payable per dollar of the assessed value of a property. As used in property tax, 1 mill is equal to $1 in property tax levied per $1,000 of a property's assessed value.

“Anytime you start talking about taxes and fees and all that people get nervous,” Mark Culver, Houston County Commission chairman, said at an administrative meeting Thursday. “I want everyone to understand that we are not here today to raise the rate of taxes. We’re here today to consider putting on the agenda to resume the collection of a millage that is already on the books and has been on the books for many, many years at the request of the Houston County Healthcare Authority.”

William Nichols, general counsel for Houston County Healthcare Authority, told the commission that the decision to ask the commission for an increase to the special tax of 1.5 mills “was not made lightly by our board.”

“One (reason) is the skyrocketing cost of contract labor,” Nichols explained. “The second is the federal government’s recent reduction of our reimbursement rate for our part of the world. The third is inflationary costs that every citizen and business in this county and this country has to deal with right now.”

Nichols said Southeast Health was having to use contract nurses to keep the facility staffed, which was increasing labor costs due to nurses being in such high demand across the country.

Nichols called the situation a “perfect storm that has created a financial headwind for our hospital” and that it “would be economically irresponsible not to collect the additional millage that is constitutionally required for our hospital.”

“The problem is that during the pandemic the federal government in its infinite wisdom decided that it was going to reduce our reimbursement rate even further than it was,” Nichols said. “Not just for our hospital but for our whole region. Not only are we paying millions and millions more to staff our hospitals with nurses…we’re being paid less from the federal government to do so.”

Brandon Shoupe, a Houston County Commissioner, asked a few questions to Houston County Healthcare Authority officials about what the increased property tax funding would specifically go towards and about the timing of the request.

“We can’t just say ‘approve’ just because you’re an employer. That’s not how it works especially when it comes to property taxes,” Shoupe said. “I’m sure you understand that. I’ve got family that work in health care and I hear just about every day that the system is broken at the federal level. That’s not your fault. That’s not our fault. That’s the federal government’s fault. To be quite honest with you that’s the game y’all are playing in. Unfortunately, you’ve got to play in that game. I get that. I get what you’re facing. Nurses they’re going to get paid what they’re worth one way or the other whether they work as an employee or work as a contract laborer. Fortunately, for them they’re seeing that they can make more money as a contract laborer and the federal government is not adjusting reimbursement rates…they’re asleep at the wheel. I’m entirely sympathetic. I don’t want you to think that I’m not.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email caleb.taylor@1819News.com.

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