In the Dec. 5 general election, Ouachita Parish voters will entertain a measure to renew a property tax of 1.45 mills across the parish to support the operations of the G.B. Cooley Hospital Service District.
Under the proposal on the ballot, the millage would be levied for a period of 10 years beginning in 2021.
The G.B. Cooley Hospital Service District was created in 1962 as a component of the Ouachita Parish Police Jury, which appoints the hospital service district’s commissioners. G.B. Cooley provides 24-hour care for individuals with mental or developmental disabilities. The hospital provides all basic needs for each individual, including speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychological services and vocational training services.
Police Jury President Shane Smiley noted the tax proposal entailed no increase of the tax burden on taxpayers.
“It’s strictly a renewal,” Smiley said. “There’s no increase. I believe it’s the same millage they’ve had in effect for decades.”
Early voting for the Dec. 5 general election begins Saturday.
Smiley admitted that some people have questioned whether G.B. Cooley needed to renew the property tax, which is expected to generate some $1.6 million in tax revenues each year.
“There’s a couple of people who want to jump on us and want to see it go away,” Smiley said.
That would be the case, according to police jurors, because G.B. Cooley generates most of its revenues through state grants, specifically through its daily rate charges for each client. That means the hospital’s revenue depends on the number of residents housed at its facility, though the hospital has often maintained about the same number of residents each year.
In August, Police Juror Scotty Robinson cast the lone vote against calling an election to renew G.B. Cooley’s millage. Robinson said he received “hate mail” for voting against calling an election to renew the tax, though he planned to support the measure on Dec. 5.
Earlier this week, Robinson reiterated his concerns about the property tax, arguing he questioned whether G.B. Cooley needed the additional $1.6 million in revenue.
“If they needed an increase, I would most likely support that, but if they don’t need the money, I don’t want to give away tax dollars,” Robinson said. “I want them to have every dollar they need, but not a penny more.”
“I just have questions,” he added.
For example, during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, G.B. Cooley received nearly $10 million in medical assistance program grants from the state. The hospital service district also raised about $842,000 in fees through its residential program. Meanwhile, G.B. Cooley collected some $1.6 million in property taxes from Ouachita Parish taxpayers.
The hospital’s expenditures for the same fiscal year totaled some $12.1 million. After all transfers, G.B. Cooley ended the year with a surplus of $565,016. The surplus raised G.B. Cooley’s fund balance from some $11.5 million to some $12.1 million.
G.B. Cooley’s director, Benjamin “Ben” Pitts, appeared to challenge police jurors’ past objections to the property tax.
“They have their rights and their opinion, but our opinion has always been simple,” Pitts said. “This has always been voted on by the public, so we should let the public decide.”
Pitts also thanked parish taxpayers for their past support of the millage, noting the tax had been renewed more than five times. G.B. Cooley also was important to the local economy with a payroll of some $6.5 million, according to Pitts.
Pitts argued the property tax, or “tax benevolence,” freed G.B. Cooley from having to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We do not compete in fundraising with other organizations that do what we do,” Pitts said. “We view the ad valorem as our fundraising. That’s how it has helped us. It gives us the opportunity to focus on expansion of facilities and services. It’s impossible to do that without the supplemental income.”
According to Pitts, the property tax proposal’s “positives far outweigh the negatives,” referring to news that broke last year about the arrest of G.B. Cooley’s former financial director for embezzlement of some $400,000.
“We had some negative press, which came at a bad time,” said Pitts, referring to the election.
In October 2019, G.B. Cooley’s former financial director, Edward Calloway, of West Monroe, turned himself in to authorities and was charged with felony theft and false accounting. The criminal charges stemmed from his admission to investigators that he embezzled money from G.B. Cooley’s general fund and placed it in his personal account.
Court documents show that Calloway began working at the hospital service district in 2009 as a staff accountant but later became the organization’s financial director.
“Calloway confessed that in 2012 he began stealing money from the G.B. Cooley bank accounts by making ACH withdrawals to his personal bank account,” stated the arrest warrant. “Calloway said in the beginning he transferred about 1 to 2 transactions a week in the amounts of $400 to $800. Then he said over time it grew to 2 to 3 times a week in the amounts of $1,400 to $1,900. He estimated during the entire period of the theft he stole $400,000.”
Calloway told investigators he recorded the transfers to look like payroll disbursements.
The revenues supporting G.B. Cooley’s general fund were provided through Medicaid funding and parish millage revenues.
“Calloway said that he was able to fool the company auditors for years because he was in charge of reconciling the bank records, knowledgeable in the financial software G.B. Cooley utilized and because he altered specific documents they requested,” stated the warrant. “He said that the auditors only requested a statement each year for the month of June. Calloway said he scanned that monthly statement into a PDF converter, deleted the ACH withdrawals that went to his bank account, then he shrank the PDF to hide the blank sections from the deleted transfers. He said he then deleted entries of revenue that was coming in to compensate for the shortage of money he stole.”
According to court documents, Calloway confessed to the crime because auditors had recently sent notice they would be requesting records. Calloway told investigators he was frightened he would finally get caught stealing.
According to hospital financial documents, G.B. Cooley recovered some $150,000 by filing an insurance claim related to the incident.
The incident resulted in a finding in G.B. Cooley’s audit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019.
Early voting extends until Nov. 28, except for Sunday, Nov. 22; Thursday, Nov. 26 (Thanksgiving Day); and Friday, Nov. 27 (Acadian Day).
Early voting in Ouachita Parish will be conducted at the West Ouachita Senior Center in West Monroe as well as at the Ouachita Parish Health Unit on DeSiard Street from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.