A contract for a new feasibility study for a county hospital/24-hour heath care facility is half way to being executed.

At Valencia County Commission meeting last month, county purchasing agent Rustin Porter told commissioners there were “six good respondents” to the request for proposal the commission approved for a new study in June.

While the county received $20,000 from the Legislature to fund the study, Rustin said the contractor the county was negotiating with put the cost of the study at $158,294.

County Manager Danny Monette said when the commission authorized the RFP for a new study, the county requested $100,000 from the Legislature.

“We knew we were short so we planned for an additional $80,000 in the budget,” Monette said. “I know we can come up with the additional funds.”

In June, commissioners voted to move forward with a new feasibility study for a facility after the New Mexico Department of Health indicated it would be willing to at least review any application for a mill-levy supported hospital licensed by an existing hospital to operate remotely in the county.

“In their response, they didn’t give an answer of ‘yes,’ but said they would review any application,” said county attorney Dave Pato. “They wouldn’t speak to whether that was allowed.”

Commissioner Gerard Saiz asked to table the contract until the two new commissioners — Troy Richardson and Joseph Bizzell — were brought up to date on the feasibility project.

Porter said the contract should be ready to bring back to the commission in February.

“The contract is signed by the awarded vendor already and we are awaiting the approval by the commission to have a fully executed contract,” he said via email.

The vendor, Kulik Strategic Advisors Inc., of Dawsonville, Ga., has been issued a notice of intent for award of the contract.

Staff from The University of New Mexico Hospital advised the county last summer to have a new feasibility study done for any health care facility it was considering. The last study was done in 2012 for city-owned property on Christopher Road in Belen.

The study, done by Ameris Management Systems, had begun earlier that year in partnership with the now defunct nonprofit Valencia Health Commons, which had hired Ameris to plan, develop, build and manage a hospital on 63 acres just east of N.M. 47 on Manzano Expressway in Rio Communities.

The county hospital issue dates back to 2006, when voters approved an eight-year, 2.75 mill levy — a property tax — to support a hospital/24-hour emergency facility in Valencia County.

The passage of the tax was almost immediately followed by a lawsuit by nine county residents, which lead to years of litigation and subsequent lawsuits.

Where the facility should be located, who should build and operate it and how the mill levy funds could legally be used were all points of debate and the project still languishes.

Even though the tax only applied to tax years 2007 through 2014, the treasurer’s office still collects money for the project. Valencia County Treasurer Deseri Sichler said the money is from back taxes the department collects annually.

“Every year, people work on paying their delinquencies and when they pay, the money is applied to that year,” Sichler said.

Delinquent taxes remain on a property owners account for 10 years, with the property being turned over to the state Taxation and Revenue Department after three years of delinquency for collection and possible auction.

If a property owner arranges a payment plan or the property is auctioned, when the taxes are paid to the county the funds are allocated how they should have been if they were paid on time.

For instance, in 2019, the county collected about $34,000 in back taxes for the tax years the hospital mill levy was in effect.

“So if you pay back taxes for 2009, they are divided up for the purposes they were allocated for then,” the treasurer said. “If you look at the pie chart on your tax bill, you’ll see where the money went, but if you look at your tax bill, you’ll see what you actually are paying — it will break down for the schools, county operational, soil and water. The hospital mill levy isn’t on there any more.”

Sichler said any back taxes collected for the tax are put in a separate, interest-bearing account at Bank of the West with the rest of the mill levy proceeds. The most current statement she had access to — October 2020 — showed a balance of $26,537,238.11.

Porter said the feasibility study had a “shelf life” of five to 10 years, depending on which category you were considering. He said the interactive predictive models that determine the health care needs of the county were good for eight to 10 years, while the reimbursement and insurance analytics and physician and recruitment components of the study would be relevant for five years.

The study itself will take about six to nine months before the project would be able to move forward to address a facility and providers.

Pato said there was proposed legislation for this year’s legislative session to clarify language to allow the county use the mill levy for a hospital/24-hour emergency facility, as well as clarify the funds that could be used for a remote acute facility.

The question of exactly what kind of facility the mill levy could be used for came to a head at the end of 2019. The county had contracted with Lovelace to build and operate a health care facility, however the facility they were willing to construct didn’t meet the definition of a hospital.

“This proposed legislation makes clear it can be used for a hospital and/or 24 emergency room,” Pato said, “and it can be used for support of a facility licensed as a remote facility of an acute care facility.”

Commission Chairman Jhonathan Aragon, who is now vice chairman, said the study and draft legislation were another step to getting the project to a healthy place.

“I think we’ve taken feasible steps and are making sure Valencia County residents get what they paid for all those years ago,” Aragon said.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.