A long-debated issue is one step closer to voter approval.

While an election has not been called asking Somervell County residents to weigh in on the formation of a hospital district, the wheels are in motion. A petition requesting the issue be placed on the May 11 ballot was presented to county officials Wednesday. James Burkhart, co-chair of the Glen Rose Medical Center Hospital (political action) Committee, handed over a stack of signatures to County Judge Mike Ford.

Burkhart said there was no question the required number of signatures - 100 - had been obtained by the committee, which includes about 40 county residents with a common mission.

"The committee is interested in forming a hospital district to benefit citizens - rather than having a hospital that is run by county government," he said.

County Judge Mike Ford said several steps must be followed before an election is called.

"I will verify the petitions to see they are in proper form," Ford said. "I will then file them with the Office of County Clerk Candace Garrett."

At their regular February meeting, commissioners will set a date and time for a hearing to consider the petitions. 

"At that point, commissioners will set another hearing at which time the clerk will be able to verify that the signatures do belong to qualified, registered voters." Ford said.

The process will be complete prior to March 1.

Although Burkhart was not ready to delve into the details surrounding the formation of the district, he said facts would be presented once the issue is on the ballot and as early voting approaches.

But Burkhart did say he feels the formation of a district is key to keeping the hospital open.

"Without forming a hospital district, 1115 federal (medicaid reimbursement) funding is at risk," he said. "That is about $1.5 million per year."

Add to that the "potential devaluation" of Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, and the threat to the local economy increases, Burkhart added.

"I believe the hospital district is imperative in providing local, quality healthcare and protecting citizens' investment in Glen Rose Medical Center," he said, adding the medical center has an estimated economic impact of $25-35 million annually.

Burkhart said the political action committee is currently organizing a campaign which aims to answer all questions on taxpayers' minds, including the impact on property owners. He said the group plans to reach out to individual taxpayers in person, address community groups and distribute informational brochures in an effort to answer all related questions prior to election day.