“New taxing district” missing from messaging so far on special hospital district

by Kathleen Sloan | June 4, 2021
7 min read
If a referendum on the special hospital district makes it onto the November ballot, candidates for its five-member board of trustees will be elected at the same time. Candidates can run to represent the Sierra County Commission district in which they reside or for two "at large" positions. Source: Sierra County Government

For the last two years the Joint Powers Commission, the financial overseer of Sierra Vista Hospital in Truth or Consequences, has been pushing to change the hospital’s ownership structure to that of a special hospital district. So far, the only reason given for the change is that oversight by two separate boards with 21 members combined—as the hospital’s governance is presently structured—represents “too many cooks in the kitchen.”

The JPC has yet to make the public aware that, in addition to simplifying governance, a special hospital district has taxing authority that enables it to seek voter approval to hike property taxes. State law currently permits special hospital districts to ask for mill levies of up to $4.25 per $1,000 of taxable property value.

The JPC is leading a quiet petition drive to place the question of whether to create a special hospital district on the November ballot. Two attempts to persuade the state legislature to form the district have failed, and now the JPC must convince Sierra Countians to vote for it on Nov. 2.

The hospital will still be publicly owned, with the owners’ representatives and financial overseers being five elected officials. Sierra Countians will be more directly represented as the hospital’s owners if the special hospital district is approved at the polls.

Currently, elected officials sitting on the Sierra County Commission, Elephant Butte City Council, Truth or Consequences City Commission and Village of Williamsburg Board of Trustees sit on the JPC, the “owner’s board.” The public’s interests are also represented by non-elected members of the public chosen by the elected members of the four local governments to sit on the hospital Governing Board, which oversees day-to-day operations.

The JPC must turn in the petition to County Clerk Shelly Trujillo by mid-June with the required 472 signatures of qualified voters. Trujillo and her staff will certify whether the signatories are qualified. The certified petition must be turned in to the Secretary of State by June 24 in order to appear on the November ballot.

Candidates for the special hospital district board of trustees will also be on the Nov. 2 ballot, if the petition is certified. Those interested in running must formally declare their candidacy by filing with the county clerk on Aug. 24, according to Trujillo.

Last month the Sun requested information about the JCP’s plans for the petition drive and the fall election campaign and details about the restructuring itself from JPC Chairperson Kim Skinner, who is mayor pro tem of Elephant Butte, and JPC member Jim Paxon, who is chairperson of the Sierra County Commission.

Receiving no response, the Sun then sent questions to Sierra Vista Hospital CEO Eric Stokes via email. The Sun asked how the ownership changeover would happen; whether the hospital had the ability to pay off debt from the taxes the four local governmental entities already collect on the hospital’s behalf; and if the JPC would inform the public that their yes vote will create a new countywide taxing district.

This week, Paxon answered the questions sent to Stokes, speaking “as a member of and for the Joint Powers Commission of the Sierra Vista Hospital.” The questions and answers—lightly edited for clarity—follow.

1. Have you investigated what the sale or turnover of the current hospital ownership will be? That is, from the two-board JPC/Governing board to the five trustees? Will all assets and debts have to be negotiated by the two parties? 

There will be no sale of the hospital assets. The JPC is statutorily responsible for the fiscal health of the hospital and the four members have proportional ownership under state law: T. or C. (40 percent), Elephant Butte (15 percent), Williamsburg (5 percent) and the County of Sierra (40 percent). If the ballot measure to create a special hospital district passes, the JPC would cede the assets and the outstanding loan to the special hospital district. The mill levy and GRT [gross receipts taxes] collections would continue in the name of the hospital district. This is a straight across action that would not require negotiation.

2. It appears that the JPC is leading the petition drive to get the special hospital district and five trustee candidates on the ballot. Do you know anything about town halls, their locations and dates, and who will be communicating with the public? 

No town hall dates have been planned, but will be scheduled after the filing for the ballot measure. Posting of the schedule will be in several places, but for certain on the Sierra County website under Sierra Vista Hospital.

3. What knowledge base should a special hospital district trustee have? Do you consider it your job [this question was directed to Stokes as a hospital administration expert and as Sierra Vista’s CEO] to train them once they are elected? 

Those individuals who have an interest in serving as a trustee on the Special Hospital District Board would need to submit their names to the Sierra County Clerk after the filing for the special hospital district measure, either for one of the three county commission districts, which require residency within the district, or for the two “at large” positions on the November ballot. The election would decide the five trustees by majority, the same as any local elections. There are no prerequisites for the positions, but I would assume that candidates would campaign for the position for which they run.

The primary purposes of the special hospital district are to minimize confusion, reduce the challenge in operating the hospital under two boards with a total of 21 members and, finally, have the special hospital district trustees report directly to the people who elect them, the citizens of Sierra County, much like a school board. I believe that those folks who are interested in continuing to provide the best health care possible for the citizens of Sierra County will be elected and they will be committed to communicating with the public.

4. Currently $30 million in hospital construction debts are being paid by gross receipt taxes and property tax. The hospital loan payment is over $1.46 million a year starting May 2021. In years past, the local taxes have been insufficient to pay this amount. Where is the needed extra money coming from? 

I am rather curious as to the negative tone of this question. Who says the hospital isn’t able to pay the loan? Currently, the hospital is more than just solvent; it is in excellent financial health. The property taxes (Sierra County 2 mill levy) and gross receipts taxes commitment from each of the four entities would continue, and N.M. Department of Finance would continue to intercept that amount annually. In addition, through daily functioning, the hospital is required by law to keep a reserve of 130 percent for the annual loan payment from the operation proceeds of the hospital. This amount is measured and secured monthly.

State Senator John Arthur Smith was instrumental in getting capital improvement projects for the completion of the new hospital and for refinancing the loan. One of the successes of the JPC/Governing Board and Quorum’s hospital management, which include our new CEO, Eric Stokes, is that we are current on loan payments and have a healthy reserve fund to be absolutely sure that we remain that way.  Recent covid assistance and a large PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan also assisted the hospital through the covid crisis.

5. Will the new trustees, if the special hospital district passes at the polls, have to propose a special hospital district property tax to cover the loan debt? 

The proposed special hospital district would have authority to levy taxes, but currently and, in the foreseeable future, there is no anticipated need for a change in taxes.

6. The special hospital district will be a taxing district, yet the JPC has not been stating this in its two attempts to have the state legislature form a special hospital district. Will whoever is educating the public about the special hospital district during town halls be going over what it means for the taxpayer? 

Several members of the JPC and the Governing Board will be involved in the town halls. Information will be presented and questions will be taken. A schedule of times and places for the town halls will be posted on the Sierra County website under “Sierra Vista Hospital,” as well as on the other entities’ websites. I believe that the appropriate time for town halls is in early fall, prior to the election.

Kathleen Sloan is the Sun’s founder and chief reporter. She can be reached at kathleen.sloan@gmail.com 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.


Legislature having balked, Sierra Vista Hospital leaders will now ask community to vote on special hospital district
by Kathleen Sloan | April 20, 2021

If a referendum to create a special hospital district is held this November, county voters will essentially be deciding whether to increase their property taxes...

Nor-Lea Special Hospital District CEO David Shaw attributes success to public engagement
by Kathleen Sloan | December 2, 2020

What lessons can be learned about how to make this form of hospital governance work to improve patient care from Lovington, NM's experience?

Sierra Vista Hospital’s problems are rooted in hidden contention among leaders and over-borrowing, says Senator John Arthur Smith
by Kathleen Sloan | November 30, 2020

The veteran senator supports the creation of a special hospital district because of his firsthand knowledge of the hospital's management, financial and governance problems.

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