Changing ownership and governance of Sierra Vista Hospital to a “special hospital district” is on legislative menu again

by Kathleen Sloan | November 11, 2020
6 min read
Will the proposed restructuring bring better management and financial stability to the renovated hospital? The public may be asked to decide. Photograph by Ron Fenn copyright © 2020

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.

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at or 575-297-4146.
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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.


Sierra Vista Hospital Joint Powers Commission asks legislators to form special hospital district
by Kathleen Sloan | January 31, 2020

​The Sierra Vista Hospital Joint Powers Commission, a 12-person board comprised of three elected officials from each of the local-government entities, passed a resolution Jan….

County Manager Bruce Swingle appointed again to represent City of TorC on hospital Governing Board
by Kathleen Sloan | June 24, 2020

​Bruce Swingle, Sierra County manager, was reappointed to be the City of Truth or Consequences’ representative on the Sierra Vista Hospital Governing Board, his expertise…

Preview of Truth or Consequences City Commission meeting June 24:  Public hearing on County—not City—handling local elections; Massive budget adjustment;    Hospital and utility board appointments
by Kathleen Sloan | June 22, 2020

Preview of Truth or Consequences City Commission meeting June 24:                Public hearing on County—not City—handling local elections;   …

1 thought on “Changing ownership and governance of Sierra Vista Hospital to a “special hospital district” is on legislative menu again”

  1. We think that district representation is highly important, but question whether this smaller board would more easily facilitate the leasing or sale of the hospital to a for-profit entity.

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