The Ellis County Commissioners’ Court on Tuesday discussed, then took no action on an agreement with a sexual health and pregnancy center in Waxahachie to provide ultrasound services for expectant mothers, after late changes to the proposal came under dispute.
Vernon Witherspoon, who is with FirstLook, addressed the court and told commissioners he had submitted changes to the draft contract after discussing some details with county attorneys Vance Hinds and Patrick Wilson.
Witherspoon said an agreement between the county and FirstLook “can be a politically-charged situation,” in light of the court’s vote last week to approve a resolution making Ellis County a sanctuary county for the unborn, the first county in Texas to do so.
As a result, Witherspoon said, he wants to make sure all details of the contract are squared away in order to protect the county and the contract.
“We are ready to perform the sonograms and do those acts,” Witherspoon said. “We do about 250 (sonograms) a year, as of 2019. The value of those sonograms, we’ve assessed at about $250 per sonogram. So it’ll be well in excess of $30,000, as far as validation. We’re not worried about when you audit us and you see what we’re doing. Our services are not going to be comparable for more than the value that Ellis County is going to provide.”
However, Hinds disagreed with some of Witherspoon’s account, saying the revised contract was not the contract he had reviewed with Wilson the day before and that Hinds had not seen the changes.
“I’m kind of at a loss of words because we were unaware another law firm was looking at it too while we were spending two hours with Mr. Witherspoon yesterday,” Hinds told the court. “If you would rather employ another firm to handle you and advise you on this contract, we would just like to know ahead of time.”
FirstLook provides a number of services, including STI testing and treatment; pregnancy testing; abortion pill reversal; and domestic violence screening. The center also offers prenatal, parenting, adult and infant CPR and life skills classes; and counseling services.
Attorney Greg Wilhelm, who wrote the final document for the county along with three other attorneys, told commissioners that the contract promotes the authority that Chapter 61 of the state’s health and safety code provides to the county.
“I agree with Mr. Witherspoon that ultrasounds are a health care service that serves the public interest,” Wilhelm said. “Though I agree that a contract can send a statement and send a message, that there is no legal reason to include the section … regarding the fact that a municipality or county is not restricted from prohibiting abortion. That’s a true statement, but if we’re looking at this technically, I don’t see where it injures this contract or diminishes it in any way.”
Hinds asserted that the statement that there is a state law covering restrictions on local governments from prohibiting abortions was incorrect and should not be included in the contract. Hinds said the actual bill that was voted into law last year states that counties may forbid funding any clinic that provides abortions. “That’s a change in wording that’s very important,” Hinds said.
County Judge Todd Little said the sentence is not important to the contract and should be stricken.
Cassandra Payton, one of the attorneys who assisted Wilhelm in writing the contract, reassured commissioners that there is authorization for the county to provide additional health care services under the Texas health and safety code as long as the county does not seek state reimbursement for those services.
“Chapter 61 expressly authorizes the provision of those health care services through a contract with a private health care provider,” Payton said. “We’re confident and we would recommend entering this contract.”
Little said the county would not be seeking state reimbursement and the money for the contract would be coming out of the county’s general fund.
Another clause, providing for indemnity in the instance of negligence by the clinic, also came under scrutiny.
The court is expected to take up the matter at its next meeting on Feb. 25.
• The approved consent agenda items included acceptance of the Ellis County investment report for the fourth quarter of 2019 and approval of an interlocal cooperation contract between the county and city of Red Oak for 2020.
• The court OK’d payment in the amount of $25,000 to Court Appointed Special Advocates of Ellis County. Later in the meeting, commissioners also agreed to make a similar payment to Ellis County Child Protective Services Board.
• A list of vehicles, vehicle parts, computer hardware, law books and furniture was declared surplus and will be disposed of. According to Local Government Code Chapter 263, this property may be sold by auction or sealed bid, donated to a civic or charitable organization, traded in or disposed of as worthless, among a number of options.
• The court accepted more than $68,000 combined in unanticipated revenue from an online auction last month and from an insurance claim related to an Ellis County Sheriff’s vehicle.
• Budget amendments approved by the court included purchases for gravel, jailer uniforms, culverts and hardware tools. A fund balance carryover of $479,500 was applied to a number of line items, the biggest part of which — $336,592 — was applied to the Cities Readiness Initiative.
• Two new 2020 Chevrolet Tahoe vehicles and a metal detector for the Precinct 2 facility were purchased, and authorization was given to submit bids for lightweight aggregate materials for surface treatment.