Fort Worth

JPS $809 million bond package may be revamped, put on 2016 ballot

Exterior views of John Peter Smith Hospital
Exterior views of John Peter Smith Hospital STAR-TELEGRAM

An $809 million bond package geared to dramatically update the aging John Peter Smith Hospital campus needs to be revamped and could potentially go before voters next November.

Not initially included in the package were improvements likely needed at JPS clinics or any work needed to be done now that a new medical school is soon coming to Fort Worth, officials said.

As a result, county and JPS officials next week “will probably recommend that the bond package election be scheduled at a time after these issues and others have have been properly vetted,” Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius told county commissioners Tuesday.

“We are currently looking at November 2016 as a possible election date.”

The main pieces of the proposed bond package — a 10-story patient tower, a five-story psychiatric hospital and renovations throughout the facility — would remain in the plan, JPS President Robert Earley said.

“We’ve really spent the better part of six years working on this,” he said. “There’s no doubt a new patient tower is critical, a new psychiatric hospital is critical and renovations are critical.

“This might change things slightly to accommodate what we need.”

Also Tuesday, Commissioner Andy Nguyen proposed naming Warren Norred, an Arlington attorney who has represented Open Carry Tarrant County, to serve on the JPS Board of Managers.

The court approved the proposal. Norred will replace Steve McCollum, who resigned.

Stumbling blocks

JPS officials earlier this year unveiled the bond proposal that originally called for work to start next year on improving the facilities — and take until mid-2022 to finish.

“We are a health organization that needs to make sure it advances with the times,” Earley said.

Officials have said the plan is to not raise the tax rate for the hospital district. The bonds, they say, would be paid over three decades through growing revenue from higher property values and increased hospital revenues.

Plans also initially called for construction on a new taxpayer-supported hospital to begin as soon as 2017.

But a few things apparently got in the way.

Town hall meetings wrapped up last month, generating opposition from tea party conservatives and Tarrant County’s GOP executive committee alike. More than 650 people signed a petition asking that the package not be put on the ballot.

Then last month, officials with Texas Christian University and University of North Texas Health Science Center announced they are working together to open up a new medical school in Fort Worth.

They said the school could open in 2018 with as many as 60 new students. Already, about $25 million for the effort has been pledged by private donors.

“The announcement of the new medical school is a game changer because we are the largest teaching hospital,” Earley said.

Difference of opinions

Even though the issue was not on the county commissioners’ agenda Tuesday, Ross Kecseg showed up to personally deliver the stack of signed petitions asking for the bond to not be put on the ballot to county officials.

He said they are from a growing number of residents who oppose the bond proposal. Some are worried about its impact, others worry it will raise taxes.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions about financial projections,” said Kecseg, director of the Metroplex bureau of the conservative Texans for Fiscal Responsibility. “People have a lot of questions on how this would work.”

Aaron Harris, a North Richland Hills man and an opponent of the bond proposal, also spoke at the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, saying the entire process of preparing the bond proposal “has been questionable.”

He said the bond proposal “is detrimental” and a “boondoggle.”

Earley said he appreciates feedback from the town hall meetings and the petitions.

“Any time you have an issue of this magnitude, you are going to get a lot of different opinions,” he said. “I really appreciate those different opinions because it means people care.

“The best way to do this is to listen to people. This is their public hospital. How else do you find out how to improve it?”

Coming up

Maenius told the court that he and Earley will discuss the issue more in detail during next week’s commissioners court meeting.

Earley said JPS had to pick dates to develop potential work schedules and work costs, but “there really wasn’t a set date for this” bond proposal to go on the ballot.

He said he believes the bond proposal can be updated to include any changes necessary — still without a tax increase — and be ready to put the issue on the budget in November 2016.

But that, Earley said, is a decision that will be made by the commissioners court. He plans to update the bond proposal before the court next week.

“The court has the final say and I will respect whatever decision they make,” he said.

Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley