in Houston, Texas
Bid for secrecy? Travis County hospital district sets up nonprofit
Monday, Jan 07, 2013, 11:38AM CST
By Mark Lisheron

Having endured those galling laws requiring tax increases be voted on in public, the Travis County hospital district would like to get down to the business of spending your $54 million without your help, thank you.

The district might have preferred not to tell you how they plan to do it had the Austin American-Statesman not made its usual, irksome inquiries.

You see, rather than distribute your property tax increase and as much as $76 million more in matching federal tax money a year through its own board, subject to the nettlesome state Open Meetings Act, the district established a nonprofit Central Health Collaborative, the Statesman is reporting.

Such a nonprofit is not subject to the Open Meetings Act because it isn’t a government body, according to Beth Devery, who offered her opinion as an attorney for the taxpayer-supported government body known as Travis County.

Devery is also the lawyer for the Central Health Collaborative.

Travis County taxpayers might not have gotten mixed up in all this secret medical business had county voters in November not handily passed Proposition 1.

Ostensibly a referendum on establishing a new medical school for the University of Texas in Austin, voters also were agreeing to nearly triple for the average homeowner taxes to support health care for the indigent in 2014.

That tax increase makes Travis County eligible for as much as $76 million a year in more-than-matching federal funds.

This funding is a small tributary to a roiling pool of medical and medical school funding with sources that had to be wrenched out of the University of Texas System by open records requests this past summer.

Creating and running the medical school is estimated to cost $4.1 billion in the first 12 years. The university system expected $420 million of that total to come from Central Health Collaborative.

The Collaborative is supposed to assist Seton Healthcare Family, the local hospital group pledging $1.9 billion over 12 years for the medical school, in finding a location for a new teaching hospital. And later, enter into a contract for health care services through the medical school.

Just how the Collaborative will spend your money might or might not be a matter of public record. The Collaborative hasn’t yet decided whether to hold its meetings in public or in secret, Christie Garbe, vice president of planning and communications, told the Statesman.

The hospital district board spent almost half of its meeting time last year in secret, the paper reports.

Joseph Larsen, a Houston lawyer and Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas board member, told the Statesman the nonprofit would be better off operating more publicly.

Buck Wood, an Austin lawyer who worked on the the current open meetings laws when they were drafted in the 1970s, said had he known the Collaborative’s meetings would be secret he would not have voted for Proposition 1.

“We are basically contracting away the right to information that the public ought to have,” Wood told the paper. “If you’re spending that kind of money, we want to know everything about it.”

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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