Sierra Countians may be asked to decide whether to create a special hospital district at the November polls, since the attempt to have state legislators pass the measure has now failed twice.
If a referendum to create a special hospital district can be placed on the ballot this fall, county voters will essentially be deciding whether to increase their property taxes to support Sierra Vista Hospital, because a hospital district has its own taxing authority.
A special hospital district would also simply Sierra Vista’s ownership and oversight structures.
Putting the question of a special hospital district on the ballot was the informal decision of the Sierra Vista Hospital Joint Powers Commissioners at their April 15 quarterly meeting. Whether to go forward with a referendum on the district was on the agenda as a discussion item only, so the JPC could not formally vote on the matter. The JPC agreed to call a special meeting soon to hold a vote, which will probably pass, as no one dissented during the April 25 meeting.
The special hospital district legislation, Senate Bill 76, was presented during the regular 2020 session by its sponsors, state Representative Rebecca Dow, R-District 38, and state Senator Crystal Diamond, R-District 35,
Travis Day, JPC member and Sierra County Commissionvice chairman, said SB 76 got through the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee with a “do pass,” and then headed to the Senate Judiciary Committee, “where it died,” without ever being scheduled for a hearing. “Some senators were questioning why it was being formed legislatively versus by referendum,” Day said.
In a separate interview with the Sun, Sierra County CommissionChairman Jim Paxon, a JPC member, confirmed that Senator Diamond was privately told by various Senate colleagues they believed that a hospital district should be formed locally, by election.
The Sun asked Senator Diamond and Representative Dow for comment. Dow responded that, as Diamond “took the lead,” on the legislation, she would “let her answer.” Diamond never responded.
Currently Sierra County’s four local governmental entities own the hospital. Agreements among Sierra County, Elephant Butte, Truth or Consequences and the Village of Williamsburg created two boards to oversee the hospital. The Joint Powers Commission, made up of elected officials from the four local governments, has 12 members. It oversees policy, long-range plans and finances. The nine community members who sit on the governing board are appointed by the elected officials of the four governmental entities, and they oversee day-to-day operations.
The public will still own the hospital if a special hospital district is formed. In compliance with state law, a five-member board of trustees elected by the people would govern the hospital and represent the public interest.
For nearly two years, members of the JPC have said the main reason for creating a special hospital district is to do away with the cumbersome and inefficient 21-person, two-board oversight. Little mention has been made of the district’s taxing authority, which will undoubtedly be deployed to support the hospital’s operation and pay off its construction debt.
Currently the local government entities use their taxing authority to levy gross receipts and property taxes to pay for the debt. No matter what transpires at the November polls, the gross receipts taxes dedicated to the hospital will remain in place until 2046. The dedicated property tax will remain in place until 2028. When they expire, these taxes may be again put on the ballot, according to JPC Chairperson Kim Skinner, interviewed by the Sun before the 2020 legislative session.
The five special hospital district trustees will have the authority to put tax referendums on the ballot. State law gives them the power to propose property tax levies of up to $4.25 dollars for every $1,000 of taxable real estate value. Each new tax levy—some hospital districts have more than one—has a four-year lifespan, after which it would have to be voted upon again.
For more information about the fiscal impact a special hospital district may have on gross receipts and property taxes, read the Sun’s Related coverage at the bottom of the page.
Paxon and Sierra County Manager confirmed that, according to state law 4-48A-4, a petition signed by local voters is the first step toward placing the measure on the ballot. Qualified electors (i.e., registered voters) equal in number to 10 percent of those voting in the last election for governor must sign the petition. In 2018, 4,723 persons voted in the governor’s election, according to the New Mexico Secretary of State website; therefore, 472 registered voters living in the county must sign a petition in support of creating a special hospital district.
Once the county clerk verifies the signatures and informs the county commission the petition is “certified,” the county commission must issue a proclamation calling for an election.
Paxon told the JPC that County Attorney Dave Pato and New Mexico Hospital Association Attorney Dave Johnson would write the proclamation or “election referendum.” The referendum must be submitted to the county clerk by June 24, Paxon said, in order to be on the November general election ballot.
Paxon said the intention is to include candidates for the special hospital district trustees on the November ballot, as well. They will be installed if the special hospital district referendum passes.
State law 4-48A-5(B) stipulates that candidates for trustee must file declarations with the county clerk “not later than 5:00 p.m. on the thirtieth day after the issuance of the proclamation by the board of county commissioners.” If the referendum is successfully placed on the November ballot, those interested in running would have to declare their candidacy by Monday, July 26, the first business day after the 30-day deadline.
State law dictates that two of the five seats will have two-year terms and three will have four-year terms. In subsequent elections, all seats will be for four-year terms.
The county commission, as mandated by state law, will determine whether the trustees will be elected on an at-large or district basis.
The county commission has decided there will be two at-large and three district seats, Paxon said at the JPC’s April 15 meeting. The hospital district positions will correspond to the districts for the three county commission seats. County residents will have three votes, one for each at-large candidate and one for their district candidate.
Winning candidates must “furnish a corporate surety bond in the penal sum of ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for the faithful performance of his duties and the accounting for all funds which shall come into his possession. Such bond shall run to the benefit of the special hospital district,” state law 4-48A-8 (C) states.
The JPC will hold town halls to inform the public about the special hospital district and to circulate the referendum petition. “It will be a tight schedule, getting it on the November ballot,” Paxon told the Sun.
CORRECTION: The date of the JPC meeting referenced in the third paragraph from the end of the story, which was in error in the original posting of this story, has been corrected.