Bosque Farms supports Miller project

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Councilors in Bosque Farms agreed Thursday to draft a letter of support for the hospital project being developed in the village of Los Lunas, after a presentation from the developer.

And that support didn't come easily from one councilor.

Former mayor turned councilor Wayne Ake said that back in 2006, when the county first proposed a mill levy to support a hospital, he was, "One of the idiots who supported it. I won't say we were lied to, but we sure were misled."

Ake said there was a "pot of money out there," in the form of the mill levy, as well as a group of individuals looking to do nothing more than get that money.

"Are you associated with them?" Ake asked Miller.

"I am only associated with my partners in Oklahoma," Miller said.

Ake asked if he had already purchased the land for the hospital or had any kind of commitment to do so.

Miller said he spoke with the property owner earlier this week, and had a verbal agreement to purchase a 23-acre site west of the Los Lunas Walmart between Sand Sage and Los Morros roads.

"The owner wants to see site plans and some other things before he will commit to it," he said.

Ake, again recalling past hospital attempts, said there were plans to put the facility on N.M. 314, near Miller or Morris roads, "but then it ended up down in Rio Communities. I think this whole thing with Belen is just a smoke screen to get it back to Rio Communities. I'm glad to hear you're not involved with Valencia Health Commons."

The former president of VHC, Bob Davey, is serving as an unpaid consultant for the Miller project.

Ake asked if Miller was unable to access the mill levy funds, was his project at an end.

Miller said if his company was not able to compete for the approximately $20 million in mill levy money that is anticipated to be collected, this project, as it has been developed, would go back to the drawing board.

"We would have to go back and reassess the situation. It would mean a different relationship with our operators and funding," Miller said. "We would have to revisit all the numbers and look at that really hard. There is a solution if that does happen.

"The mill levy is the initiative for investors to come here and invest an additional $55 million in your community. That is what we're trying to do."

Miller's first involvement with Valencia County was in 2006 when his firm was hired by Covenant Health Systems to master plan a new hospital for Valencia County.

Citizens approved a mill levy in support of that hospital, but over the past six years, many attempts to pursue the hospital have been thwarted by opposing forces within the community.

Ake said previous attempts to develop a hospital in the county had "left a bitter taste in my mouth. This end of the county is where the majority of the money is coming from for the mill levy. To have something in Rio Communities that will better benefit Socorro and Mountainair than it will us, well … Los Lunas is probably the best you could have picked."

Miller said in his experience developing hospitals, people were more inclined to drive towards "a Los Lunas" or "an Albuquerque" hospital.

"We won't consider moving it — it wouldn't make sense," he said. "This county has a bad history of … well, of baiting and switching. If you want people to support this, do what you say you're going to do. Don't try to run a shuck and jive on us. It won't work again."

Councilor Dolly Wallace said on a recent trip through Oklahoma City, she saw one of Miller's hospitals from the outside.

"I was lucky enough not to see it from the inside, but I was very impressed just by the looks of it," Wallace said.

She noted that many hospitals were no longer accepting Medicare.

"Is that a possibility that this hospital would not accept Medicare?" Wallace asked. "Bosque Farms is basically turning into a retirement community."

Miller said 45 percent of the needs in Valencia County were Medicare based, and the hospital would provide service to those with the coverage.

Wallace said that while she felt Los Lunas was the most logical location for a hospital, she asked Miller to "keep Bosque Farms in mind" when it came time for the company to establish satellite facilities, such as urgent cares.

"It's kind of tough for us to get access to a facility in Los Lunas, to get through Los Lunas over to where it is," she said, referring to the congested Main Street that would come between the residents of the village and the hospital.

The councilor also asked when the doors would open. Miller said there was a initial opening date of mid 2014, but after the commission's decision in September to back the Belen project, that timeline has been "put on hold."

In January, Miller Architects took another look at the project, and in March asked the village to sign a six-month agreement of confidentiality and exclusivity, while the firm undertook a pre-development study at its own cost for a privately funded hospital in Los Lunas.

In April, the village sent a letter to the commissioners requesting they defer any action on obligating the mill levy funds until Miller concluded its study and was able to show what a difference county support and the mill levy funds could make in providing needed health care in the county, Miller said.

On Sept. 19, a week after Miller completed his study, Valencia County Commissioners signed a joint powers agreement with the city of Belen, obligating the mill levy to the support of a hospital in the southern city.

At that meeting, commissioners Donald Holliday, Mary Andersen and Georgia Otero-Kirkham voted for the agreement, while commissioners Ron Gentry and Lawrence Romero voted against approving it.

The 110,000-square-foot hospital project budget is estimated at $55 million with $31 million in construction, $11 million for equipment, $6 million in operating start up costs, $5 million in fees and financing costs, and $2 million in contingency for any unexpected things during design and construction.

The project is anticipated to create 500 local construction jobs and 450 full-time hospital jobs.

The hospital budget is estimated at $40 million a year, including $14 million in salaries and benefits.

Bosque Farms Mayor Bob Knowlton asked if the Miller project was "dead in the water" until the Belen project was completed, or if there was a way for the county to work with both projects.

"The county commission has the ability to do a lot of things, but I'm not sure it will," Miller said.

Miller said his company and investors were "on the hook" for the hospital.

"If it doesn't work, we can't go to the taxpayers and ask for more money to cover our losses," he said.

The former mayor bluntly told Miller that initially, he didn't think he would support the project when he thought Miller was "an arm of the Valencia Health Commons. But I am willing to try this. One more time."

A day earlier, Miller and Davey along with Ralph Mims, economic development director for the village of Los Lunas, looked to garner support from the town of Peralta.

Peralta Mayor Bryan Olguin told Mims during the meeting that the town would wait to talk with county commissioners before issuing a letter of support.

Mims told the council their support carried a lot of weight in terms of getting the commission to reverse its decision.

"In the meantime, it's very important to put the pressure on," Mims said. "To get a letter from your governing body that says you are in support of this hospital, if you are in support of it.

"This way, it will put additional pressure on the county commission to let them know it was not a right decision and it was not a justifiable decision. The decision does not make any sense."

Peralta town councilors asked questions that ranged from when the joint powers agreement between the county and Belen expired to how Miller got involved with the process.

Councilor Leon Otero said he would support a centrally-located hospital, and that the mill levy money should be used for the benefit of all of the taxpayers of Valencia County.

"There's $20 million sitting there and these guys are just sitting on it like it's theirs," Otero said. "It's not theirs. They have their own little interests in it and that's why it's making it a pain in the ass."

In an interview following the meeting, Miller said the mill levy money was "set aside" to provide for operations for a new hospital.

"We are developing this upon that assumption," Miller said.

He said, without the mill levy money, scaling back the project would mean renegotiating the entire relationship with everyone involved in the project, setting back the project six to eight months.

"There is a need. There is a demand," Miller said. "There are the citizens that voted for the mill levy to support the operations.

"Common sense would tell you that everything is in line. I have an operator and I have the capabilities to do it."