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Posted: July 12, 2014 10:00 p.m.

County to consider more money for indigent care

A total of seven people showed up for Wednesday’s Newton County budget hearing and nobody said a word, even though property taxes are set to rise by 5 percent and might go even higher.

The Newton Medical Center has requested more money from the county for healthcare for the uninsured, said Board of Commissioners Chairman Keith Ellis.

The proposed county-to-hospital budget calls for an increase of $160,000 over last year, Commissioner Nancy Schultz said. Last year’s hospital budget was $2,218,999. This year, hospital officials would like $2,370,860.

As presented Wednesday, the county’s new budget calls for an increase in collected property taxes from $21,339.381 to $22,177,429, requiring a tax increase of 4.99 percent. That would translate to $19.24 more for a house valued at $100,000.

The millage rate would climb to 11.225, an increase of .534.

“This is in most citizens’ minds the most important issue we face each year,” Ellis said. “We will continue to look for ways to make sure we’re spending constituents’ money in the best possible way.”

Commissioner John Douglas said he met with hospital officials who told him they needed more money from the county for indigent care, but recommended the commission invite hospital representatives to the final budget hearing on July 17 to lay out their needs in detail.

“They need to explain what we’re up against before we take any action,” he said. The council agreed.

Hospital spokeswoman Becky Needham said “most of (the indigent) patients are from Newton County.”

Ellis said state law allows commissioners to lower tax rates after they are officially “advertised” to the public, but not increase them. If the hospital is given more money, that bit would start over, complete with three hearings.

“The hospital is one of the crown jewels of this county,” Douglas said. “We just have to do this right. We don’t want to mess this up.”

Ellis said the hospital’s need for more money is obvious: “What the problem is (is) that we have an extremely high proportion of people we refer to as indigent, and we have a strong number of people who come from other counties to Newton (Medical Center) who can’t pay.”

The county has helped the hospital with such care for “many, many, many years,” Ellis said, but a steadily declining annual county “digest” – or budget – combined with increasing numbers of uninsured and rising costs of care has left the hospital in need.

The hospital’s millage – 1.2 – is maintained separate from the county’s general millage of 11.225. “Everybody asked for more” in the budget process, but department heads fall under the overall budget and increasing or decreasing their take was accomplished during the planning process. The hospital’s stand-alone millage makes things more complicated.

The final budget hearing is set for 6:30 p.m. July 17 at the Newton County Historic Courthouse. The Board of Commissioners will meet in regular session at 7 p.m. July 15, and the meetings include a public comment session.

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