County sends mill levy to voters

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The Board of Socorro County Commissioners unanimously voted in favor of a special, early vote on a modified version of the Hospital Mill Levy, which as been in effect for the past 24 years.

Starting on July 31, ballots for the approval of the mill levy will be sent out to every registered voter in Socorro County to be filled out. The ballots are to be returned before September 4.

Commissioners made two changes to the mill levy as it has been passed previously. First, the phrase, which specifically named Socorro General Hospital as the sole recipient of the funds, now lists “Socorro General Hospital and any other qualified county facility” as recipients of said funds.

It also requires recipients to be “pursuant to the terms of a health care facilities contract.”

These changes come after discussions between Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker and SGH Administrator Bo Beames, which took place at the last board meeting. Bhasker’s main issues with the mill levy were spending transparency, representation on the hospital’s board of trustees and support for the city’s ambulance program.

After impressing that he spoke as a property owner within the county and as mayor of Socorro, Bhasker said, “It’s important that property taxpayers are represented.”

The contract between the county and SGH will require greater transparency on the part of the hospital, although specifics are still under discussion.

“I’m glad you’ve put together a health contract,” Bhasker said.

Beames said in a prepared statement that, as of now, “100 percent of our county Hospital Mill Levy dollars generated go to the (Medical Assistance Division) to achieve matching federal funds through this (sole-source care provider) program.”

Under the state/federal SCP program, “Hospitals receive a $2 return for every $1 contributed by local governments.

“SCP is a state/federal program for hospitals … that are the only hospital in a community. It was put into place with the acknowledgement that hospitals and ERs are often the care provider of last resort … and the program was created to primarily promote access to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

“SCP exists to provide for the difference in what the state Medicaid Program pays the hospital and what the hospital would receive if patients were Medicare patients.”

He clarified during the board meeting that Medicare pays at-cost for care, while Medicaid pays below cost.

“One in four in New Mexico have no health coverage. More than one in four are on Medicaid. (That figure goes up to) one in three in Socorro, (and) 32 percent of SGH patients,” said Beames. “Especially with the Affordable Healthcare Act, this mill levy is more important than ever.”

With the mill levy modified as it is, funds can now be used to support the health center, which is being built to service Veguita.

Socorro County Manager Delilah Walsh reported that funds for establishing and equipping the clinic have been appropriated, including $365,720 from a Community Development Block grant.

“My goal is to have it done by March (of 2013), so we can apply again in the 2013-2014 CDBG grant cycle,” Walsh said.

Still, the ambulance service is not addressed by the mill levy. The service is costing the city a lot of money — more every year, according to Bhasker.

At the city council meeting on Monday, June 4, the mayor said that returns on the ambulance service were down 40 percent this year.

“(SGH is) absolutely willing to help with the ambulance service,” Beames said.

According to county attorney Adren Nance, using SCP funds to support an ambulance service is illegal.

“We’d have to look at another mechanism (to assist with ambulance costs),” Beames said.

After the discussion on June 14, all five commissioners voted to hold the early election for the mill levy. The room, which was packed with hospital employees, erupted with applause.

In other business, the commission

  • Heard from County Sheriff Phillip Montoya who spoke about his office’s overtime issue, which came up at the last meeting. The sheriff’s office had spend $100,000 on overtime this year so far.

“We didn’t spend $100,000 out of the county budget,” Montoya said. “Over 50 percent (of that figure) was from grants and contract work.”

As he explained it, the sheriff’s office has received about $45,000 from schools for putting officers on campus, and DWI enforcement has resulted in $20,000 in grants.

Only between $40,000 and $45,000 in overtime actually came out of the county’s budget, and that was from people who stayed after shifts and from time in court.

“I did not realize it was contract money,” said Commissioner Daniel Monette. “Thank you for clearing this up.”

  • Heard from Lemitar resident Betty Davis, who complained about a lack of handicap access and assistance facilities at the Socorro Landfill. County staff will be instructed to assist the elderly or handicapped.
  • As a reaction to the fire risk conditions in the county, which are mostly high or very high, the board declared a state of emergency.

“It’s dry — everywhere,” said Deputy Fire Marshal Mark Mercer. “That’s the bottom line.”

  • Discussed a Fiscal Management Plan as a result of their passing a deficit budget this year. The plan outlines drastic measures for balancing the budget, which will take effect if there is not a marked improvement in the county’s financial situation by Dec. 31. The board moved to table this item for the next meeting.

The next board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 26.