Passing the Budget Buck

The hospital district gives the county $30 million, it gets a budget back. Good deal.

That "spirit of cooperation" evolved into the $30 million offer to the county, which the hospital district board approved in early May -- after, as it happens, Commissioners Court had postponed a vote on the district's budget.

"I'm going to say it was Eversole's idea," is how Franklin responds when asked whose idea the money shift was. But another district board member, who not surprisingly wishes to remain anonymous, isn't quite as charitable. "Well, Jerry Eversole wants to take credit for it," this board member says. "[But] I don't know where he got the idea." Other insiders speculate that since Eversole is up for election in the fall and still faces several indictments concerning his campaign finance record-keeping, compatriots want to funnel something his way that he can brag about to the voters.

But if the paternity of this particular child isn't exactly clear, its adoptive father, Eversole, is clear about what the money will do. "The hospital district's advance," Eversole says, verbally shuffling for a moment, changing "advance" to "loan" and then insisting it's "not a loan" before continuing, "this $30 million, whether it be in cash or whether it be in the form of a three-cent tax cut, will allow Harris County to operate in fiscal year '94'95 without a tax increase."

In other words, the amount is no accident. Each one-cent increase in the county property tax rate raises about $10 million in revenue. If the budget that Commissioners Court passed in March had not been buoyed by the $30 million from the hospital district, county taxpayers (i.e. voters) would be facing a three-cent increase when the tax rate is set this fall.

As for the Metro cash-cow image -- the district's Lois Moore insists that the $30 million tab for the county is a one-time deal. "We have indicated this would be one time only, because we don't have the funding on a regular basis," Moore says. "The [district] board approved it for one year only."

Moore is clearly frustrated by the commissioners' opposition to the hospital district's budget. This is the third year in a row the district budget has required no tax increase, yet she still hears nothing but static from Radack about surplus funds and excessive spending.

"The most frustrating part is to have accomplished all this and to have this difficulty in having a budget approved," Moore says. "I don't understand it."

Radack is unmoved. The Precinct Three commissioner thinks if the district has a surplus of money, it should be spent on either providing services or rolling back the tax rate. "There's no reason to pre-plan by taking people's money early," Radack says of the idea that the district has to brace for the future. And he doesn't buy the Metro analogy.

"The difference is, over at Metro they had a pot of money and the city said, 'We want a part of that pot.' I'm not trying to take away [the district's] pot of money," he says. "I don't think we legally can. I'm not going to try. If they want to start giving us money, to pay for things they should have paid for anyway, like health care for prisoners, that's one thing. But like I said from the beginning, I want to cut their tax. That's totally different."

And Radack continues to insist that the county's receiving $30 million from the district wasn't his idea. Which may be fair enough, but which obscures the fact that his criticism of the district likely led to the offer. And even if it had been only an idea he floated to see if anyone hopped aboard, it's understandable that he wouldn't now point to it as a panacea. The district's giving up $30 million to cover some expenses for the county isn't what Radack is after; he wants the hospital district's tax rate lowered for keeps. And a one-time payoff to keep the county wolf from the district door won't satisfy him. But taking $30 million from the district and telling taxpayers there won't be a tax increase this year -- well, it's not a bad hand for the commissioners to be dealt.

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