A local taxing entity in Odessa, Texas has left residents scratching their heads and clinging to their wallets. While officials claim next year’s property tax hike will save lives, it appears it was actually used to buy land they don’t need.

“We feel like we’ve bottomed out,” said CEO Bill Webster of the Medical Center Hospital’s current financial state,“[we] cannot cut more without risking lives.” According to officials at the Ector County Hospital Board, the hospital’s revenue from sales tax has declined due to the economic downturn while the number of patients has remained stagnant – meaning less funds to treat the same amount of people. With “lives at risk” one would expect the district to be pinching pennies and foregoing unnecessary spending; however, it seems quite the opposite is occurring.

At the Ector County Hospital District’s (ECHD) August board meeting, board members approved the purchase of two new properties: one at 500 N Washington St., and the other at 503 N Sam Houston Ave. Hospital spokeswoman Jacquie Gore says the two properties were purchased due to the anticipation of future growth, with no specific project in mind. Combined, the properties cost ECHD taxpayers $2.49 million.

Fast forward several weeks and a major tax hike has been proposed by the board that would allow the district to collect approximately $2.5 million in additional tax revenue in 2017 from homeowners. Irony? Not likely.

In other words, ECHD purchased two properties in order for them to be used for an undetermined purpose in the future, and are now asking residents to foot the $2.5 million bill… because “lives are at risk”.

In addition to the land purchase, it was recently reported that Webster’s annual salary is a whopping $445,370 – roughly $45,000 more than the salary of the President of the United States. In other words, you can make more money managing a county hospital in Odessa, TX than if you managed the most powerful country in the world. Yet, the hospital is asking taxpayers to fork over more cash because, well, “lives are at risk”.

To make matters even worse, instead of working around resident’s schedules in order to encourage attendance and thus gain more public feedback, ECHD Board has scheduled the public hearings on the tax rate and budget for September 14th and 20th at 4pm. So in order to voice your opinion about the tax increase, you also have to take off work. But as ECHD board member David Dunn puts it, “If they’ve got a problem, they will show up.”

In an effort to raise awareness of the tax hike and encourage attendance at the public hearings, Odessa resident Matthew Stringer has created an event page on Facebook titled Ector County Property Tax Increase Hearings. With a cover photo reading “…from the consent of the governed…” Stringer states that “[He] created this event because [he] believes a responsible citizenry should engage their local governments, and not allow taxes to be levied and spent without input or oversight by the people.”

While it’s vital for hospitals to maintain adequate funding to meet the needs of their respective communities, it’s also vital for residents to hold their elected officials accountable to ensure those funds are being spent appropriately and effectively.

The public hearings on September 14th and 20th are an opportunity for taxpayers to ask questions and voice opinions about how their money is spent…or in this case, wasted.

Lauren Melear

Lauren Melear leads the West Texas Bureau of Texas Scorecard. When not working, Lauren enjoys spending time with her husband and their dog, as well as cooking, working out, traveling to the hill country, and cheering on the fightin' Texas Aggies.