County commission considers mill levy

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The Socorro County Commission tabled discussion about a special vote to renew the Socorro General Hospital mill levy at its meeting Tuesday evening. But one thing that was accomplished was the beginning of a dialog about budgeting and medical care at the hospital and conflicts of professional interest in Socorro.

SGH is currently funded in part by a value-based property tax, a mill levy, which is put up to public vote for renewal every eight years. Socorro County voters have passed the mill levy three times in the past, and the hospital has depended on this income for the last 24 years.

The mill levy, currently set at 4.25 mills (0.425 percent of property value), will expire at the end of this fiscal year. The hospital’s goal at Tuesday’s meeting was for approval of a resolution for a special mail-based election that would take place between August 14 and September 14. Otherwise, the question would have to wait until the general election in November.

But the decision whether to hold a mail-in election was put on hold at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We really have two choices,” said Commission Chairman Danny Monette. “We can vote to approve the resolution or table it for the next meeting.”

Monette noted that the matter being considered was only a resolution.

“We’re not passing anything today,” he said.

District 5 Commissioner Juan Gutierrez wanted to be sure delaying action won’t further delay a mail vote, if one were held. After he was assured the next meeting was still within the required time frame by County Attorney Adren Nance and County Manager Delilah Walsh, Gutierrez made the motion, seconded by Commissioner Phillip Anaya, to table the issue until the next meeting on June 12.

Three Concerns

During discussion of the issue, Socorro mayor and private physician, Dr. Ravi Bhasker, raised several concerns. Dr. Bhasker acknowledged the hospital’s commendable role in helping keep the citizens of Socorro County alive and healthy, but he questioned using public tax funds to help the hospital, which competes with private, taxpayer-run practices like his own.

Bhasker outlined his other concerns with three major points: financial transparency, constituent representation and ambulance upkeep.

Regarding transparency, Bhasker recommended annual reports on how the mill levy money is spent.

Bhasker also expressed concern over hospital board members selecting people to serve on the same board.

“The board needs diverse local representatives,” he said, and noted the needs of the people of Alamo Navajo Reservation, Magdalena, San Antonio and other parts of the county were being underrepresented. His suggestion was that board membership be “opened up.”

Ambulances were Bhasker’s third concern about the hospital. He requested that mill levy funds be used by the hospital to support upkeep of current ambulances and to help with the triennial purchase of new ones.

Ambulances in Socorro County are sometimes used to bring patients to Albuquerque in cases that Socorro General Hospital is not equipped to deal with, he said, but if ambulances aren’t properly equipped to move a given patient, a helicopter will be employed.

“It’s very expensive to use helicopters,” he said. “Ambulance (services) … would take pressure off insurance premiums.”

Bhasker added the use of ambulances would also serve to keep patients’ costs down.

Dr. Bhasker finished his talk with a question: “If you concentrate all your resources on one unit, what happens if it fails?”

Servicing the Community

SGH Administrator Bo Beames responded to some of Bhasker’s remarks.

“One thing he failed to mention was what a great job we’re doing,” Beames said.

Beames added that the hospital provides an array of critical services to the community.

Among them are emergency medicine, community outreach programs, primary care, and specialty services.

“We’re here to support the community,” he said.

Beames also pointed out the hospital contributes $533,000 a year to charity and absorbs another $554,000 in bad debt. He said the hospital is only budgeted to make $100,000 per year.

That’s why the mill levy question is so important to the hospital. The sooner the hospital’s board of directors finds out whether or not they will continue to receive this tax money, the sooner the budget can be dealt with, and the sooner the hospital can get back to business as usual.

Beames acknowledged the county’s support of the hospital, but emphasized the benefit of helping balance the hospital’s budget more expediently.

“The mill levy brings $1.8 million from outside our community into the community,” he said.

Addressing Bhasker’s concerns over transparency, Beames said he was willing to answer questions about how the money would be spent if asked.

Dr. Darla Bejnar also spoke on behalf of the hospital. She said the hospital doesn’t consider itself being in competition with private doctors and wished there were more. She noted that, with the exception of Los Alamos, the entire state of New Mexico is under-served by physicians.

Bejnar said the mill levy would benefit the hospital and people in the area who don’t have easy access to health care.

“Yes, it will help us to stay alive, but I’m recruiting to help the county and New Mexico. The mill levy will let us do that. People don’t like to have to go to Albuquerque to get care,” she said. “We’re not recruiting to make money for Socorro General Hospital, we’re recruiting to provide care for Socorro County.”

“We don’t make a dime off physicians,” Beames added. “What it does do is provide outpatient, inpatient and critical care … It’s not competition; it’s more of a partnership.”

Other Ideas

County Manager Walsh also added some comments. She said there was no doubt the hospital benefits the community and referred to a health care survey conducted last year.

“That was a real eye-opener,” she said.

Walsh indicated that the county’s contract with the hospital could be renegotiated to require more budget transparency. She also suggested that the hospital could support ambulance services without any change in contracts.

Another idea Walsh brought up was revising the language of the question that would be put forth to voters.

“The mill levy has been specific to Socorro General Hospital. It doesn’t have to do that,” she said, adding that funds could be opened up for use by other Socorro County rural practitioners, or a health clinic in Veguita. “The question can be more general.”

Commissioner Anaya said he appreciated the open dialog between private physicians and the hospital and encouraged that there be more. “I’m all for the mill levy. You know how I feel about the hospital. (But) Bhasker is my physician,” he said, emphasizing his and other county residents’ interest in this dialog coming to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

Editor’s Note: El Defensor Chieftain General Manager T.S. Last contributed to this story.