Sierra County’s state elected officials, Representative Rebecca Dow and newly elected Senator Crystal Diamond, will present legislation in the upcoming session that will trigger the formation of a special hospital district, if passed.
The special district would replace the hospital’s 12- and nine-member two-board governing structure with one board of five elected trustees. The trustees have taxing authority, although they cannot impose a tax unless voters approve it at the polls. They may call elections to collect up to 4.25 mills property tax.
Sierra Vista Hospital is currently governed and owned by the four local governments: Sierra County, the City of Truth or Consequences, the City of Elephant Butte and the Village of Williamsburg.
Under a Joint Powers Agreement, as authorized by state law 11-1-1, three elected officials from each of the entities form the Joint Powers Commission, a 12-person “owners” board. It has the power to pass budgets and impose taxes and take on debt to support the hospital. The county and T or C each own 40 percent of the hospital, Elephant Butte owns 15 percent and Willamsburg owns 5 percent.
The elected officials on the T or C, county, Elephant Butte and Williamsburg boards appoint non-elected officials to serve on the hospital’s Governing Board. The nine members of this board, who serve three-year terms, oversee the day-to-day operations. Sierra County and T or C have three board members, Elephant Butte has two and Williamsburg has one.
With 21 persons serving on the two boards, governance and ownership members “are always at odds,” Dow said, in a Nov. 10 interview. “Governance is a problem,” she said, which the legislation should solve, by creating one board with five members.
If the bill passes, it will trigger an election of a five-member board of “trustees,” as spelled out in state law—specifically 4-48A-5.1—on special hospital districts. The Sierra County Commission’s three members will determine if the trustees are to be at-large or single-district representatives.
Kim Skinner, JPC chairperson and Elephant Butte mayor pro tem, said in an interview on Nov. 10 the JPC has rejected at-large representatives and wants rural communities, such as Winston, Chloride and Hillsboro, “to have a vote.”
If the JPC’s wishes are carried out by the Sierra County Commission, the county will be divided into five districts of equal population, with voters from each district electing a trustee.
State law 4-48A-6 states the first board will be comprised of two members with two-year terms and three members with four-year terms. Subsequently elected board members will have four-year terms.
State law 4-48A-8 states no board member shall be compensated, but nonetheless must pay for a “corporate surety bond” in the sum of $10,000 “for the faithful performance of his duties and the accounting for all funds which shall come into his possession.”
The first board will oversee the “acquisition of the existing hospital facilities,” according to state law 4-48A-11, which may be accomplished by “purchase, lease-purchase or lease for use.” The trustees would negotiate the hospital acquisition with the JPC.
Like the boards of all special hospital districts in New Mexico, Sierra Vista’s trustees would have the power to call for an election on an additional property tax to support the hospital, up to $4.25 for every $1,000 in taxable property value. The tax, if successful at the polls, can be imposed for only four years and then must again go to a vote.
Currently the county collects $2 for every $1,000 in taxable property value for the hospital, providing revenues totaling about $670,000 in 2019, according to the county’s year-end audit. The four local governments also impose a Gross Receipts Tax for the hospital within their boundaries, providing revenues totaling about $506,000 in 2019, according to Sierra Vista Hospital’s year-end audit.
Special hospital districts may be created legislatively or by a grassroots effort. If a petition is signed by10 percent of those voting in Sierra County in the preceding general election for governor, the county commission must call for an election on whether a special hospital district should be formed.
JPC Chairperson Skinner said John Arthur Smith, New Mexico Senator for District 35 until Diamond is sworn in, recommended the special hospital district be formed legislatively last year, and the JPC followed his advice.
Smith was defeated in the June primary by Neomi Martinez-Parra, who was in turn defeated by Diamond in the November election. Diamond will take office Jan. 1, 2021.
Three special hospital districts have been formed legislatively in New Mexico. The Artesia Special Hospital District was formed by state law 4-48A-3.1, with boundaries that conform to the Artesia Public School District, lying within Eddy County. It serves a population of about 12,000.
The Nor-Lea Special Hospital District was formed by state law 4-48A-3.2 and conforms to the Lovington and Tatum school districts within Lea County. It serves a population of about 12,000.
The Jal Special Hospital District was formed by state law 4-48A-3.3 and conforms to the Jal school district within Lea County. It serves a population of about 2,000.
All three of these special districts currently collect a 4.25-mill levy for the operation of their hospital facilities.
Last January, Dow and Smith presented special hospital district legislation during the 30-day session.
They requested Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham make it one of her priorities, or a “call” item, since it would be hard to get it passed during a rushed session without her added support.
According to Sierra County Commissioner Travis Day, a member of the JPC, “the bill was never called by the governor.”
Dow said: “All we were told [by the governor’s office] was that ‘someone who currently serves on one of the boards called with concerns.’”
The JPC unanimously passed resolutions favoring the legislation last year and this year, making it likely that it was a Governing Board member who called the governor’s office.
Governing Board Chairperson Greg D’Amour said in an interview on Nov. 3 the Governing Board was not opposed to the legislation last year or this year, adding “whichever form of governance we have, appropriate decisions would be made assuring quality health provision to the community.”
Governing Board Secretary Patsy Barnett said in an interview on Nov. 2: “The two boards are going along very well and I don’t find them unwieldy. I find it reassuring that there is an additional layer to keep things going in a good direction.”
Barnett is also not convinced elected officials will ensure “a better quality of board members. I seriously doubt that to be a given. Just because someone is elected rather than appointed doesn’t assure anything as to performance of duty.”
Dow has agreed to carry the bill, however, because she believes it is necessary to “move from two oversight boards to one oversight board. And it will allow the special district to access additional funds.”
Diamond did not respond to a request for information on the bill and why she has agreed to sponsor it.