City council takes next hospital step

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Belen city councilors say they are taking the final step before getting a contract signed between a hospital provider/contractor and the Valencia County Commission for a proposed hospital in the Hub City.

City councilors unanimously approved the creation of a draft health care facilities contract request for proposal at their Jan. 7 meeting. The final contract will be between the county commission and the hospital provider.

"There's no doubt in my mind that this is the last step of the process for us," said Councilor Jerah Cordova. "The ultimate end to this project is having a contract signed with Valencia County, so this is the most important step we can take."

However, the county has to first verify the results of the Ameris Management Services LLC financial feasibility study, according to the joint powers agreement between the county and the city.

To date, county commissioners haven't verified the study, which is site specific to the city-owned Christopher Road property, said Commission Chairman Charles Eaton. The study will be up for discussion by the commission soon, Eaton said.

This study, released in April 2012, found that a hospital with 28 medical/surgical beds and 12 geriatric psychiatric beds, along with basic medical/surgical, diagnostics and a 24-hour level-one emergency service is "a financially viable endeavor" at the site.

The county must verify if a hospital, no matter the size, would be successful through its own internal evaluation — consisting of commissioners and staff — or by hiring an independent consultant to provide an Independent Feasibility Validation Report to decide if a hospital is "successful and sustainable" at the Belen site.

The HCF contract outlines the operation and maintenance of the proposed hospital, as well as a lease or other acquisition of the Belen site from the city for construction and operation of a hospital facility; a financing plan for the construction and equipping of the hospital through revenue bonds; and the transfer and distribution of the mill levy by the county for operation and maintenance of the hospital.

Steve Tomita, the city's planning and zoning director, presented the idea for the city to create the HCF contract after he said he received the go ahead to do so from Valencia County Commissioner Mary Andersen.

Andersen did not return calls seeking comment before deadline Tuesday.

Belen city attorney Marcus J. Rael, from Robles, Rael and Anaya, P.C., will draft the HCF contract, since the law firm, Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin and Robb, P.A., that created the JPA, represents Lovelace Health System, which would create a conflict of interest, Tomita said.

Tomita did not elaborate on what exactly would create the conflict of interest. However, last month it was announced that Lovelace would be the provider for a competing hospital project in Los Lunas, which would be funded and built by Miller Architects out of Oklahoma City.

Although Robles, Rael and Anaya didn't state how much drawing up a contract would cost, Cordova estimated it would cost $3,500 to $4,000.

To date, the city has spent $41,450 in legal fees to draw up the JPA and a request for information and qualifications from providers, Tomita said.

Throughout each step, the city of Belen has stepped up and taken the lead to move the proposed hospital project forward, Cordova said at the meeting.

"That's the point," Cordova said. "That we are again now where the city needs to make a decision on whether or not we're going to take it to the next step, which is the final step."

With the time and money invested in getting the proposed hospital off the ground, it doesn't make sense to not continue with that momentum and move forward with drafting the HCF contract, Cordova said.

Mayor Rudy Jaramillo added, "We, as a city, took a giant step to say, 'Let's go forward with the hospital,' which was a county issue to begin with."

City officials issued a request for proposals in December for $800,000 in enhancements to Christopher Road that would make the proposed hospital site "build ready."

Construction improvements to the two-lane road include the addition of a roundabout in front of the proposed hospital site, center medians, sidewalks, landscaping, drainage and road widening.

The improvements would stretch from Belen High School to Camino del Llano. Construction on Christopher Road is scheduled to start in March and be completed by June 2013.

Improvements would avoid postponing construction of the proposed hospital, Tomita said.

The city also issued a request for information and qualifications in November to identify a medical provider interested in developing, managing and operating the proposed Belen site hospital.

City officials will recommend "the most qualified responder" to the Valencia County Commission after one is chosen mid-February.

At that point, the city will then hand this information over to the county, along with a draft HCF contract, for them to decide on.

Eaton said the county should be involved in choosing the most qualified responder.

The HCF contract would be offered to the provider by the county, not the city, according to the JPA.

"All we'll need is a contract signed in order to finish this project," Cordova said.

Jaramillo was optimistic about the outcome, saying, "It's going to work. The hospital being put right here, where it needs to be put as far as a feasibility."

While the city has taken steps to find and contract with a provider for a Belen-based hospital, it has secured a site for a potential hospital.

The city of Belen purchased the 14 acres on Christopher Road in late 2009 to become a retention pond to help alleviate flooding along Camino del Llano.

The city paid $619,386.96 for the property, but the city council at the time never publicly voted to purchase the land before the transaction occurred, and instead the purchase was ratified at the city's regular meeting in February 2010, after city officials "realized" that the purchase had not been approved by the council.

After an Open Meetings Act complaint was filed by the News-Bulletin, the New Mexico Attorney General's office found that the previous council did violate the OMA and directed the city to cure the violation by voting to either approve or disapprove to give then-Mayor Ronnie Torres authority to negotiate for the purchase, regardless of whether the councilors were present at the initial meeting.

In the spring of 2010, when the now-defunct Valencia Health Commons put out the call for hospital sites other than the Rio Communities site, the city offered up the 14 acres — the former retention pond.

In April 2012, Miller Architects entered into an exclusive and confidential relationship with the village of Los Lunas to study a hospital and medical campus in the village.

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

Last year, after six months of study, Miller announced that a 110,000 square foot regional medical center could feasibly be built in Los Lunas.

When Darin Miller, CEO of Miller Architects, announced his intentions of building a hospital in Los Lunas, he told the News-Bulletin that securing the mill levy funding for the project wasn't necessary.

In October, Miller changed his stance on the matter, saying the firm's study on needed medical services in Valencia County was greater than he initially anticipated, and therefore the support of the mill levy money is needed more than he originally thought.

Prior to that announcement, the village sent a letter to the county 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.

In September, commissioners voted 3-2 to sign the JPA with Belen and obligate the mill levy funds to the Christopher Road site.

The Los Lunas 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 occurrences during design and construction.

The Miller project in Los Lunas has secured a provider — Lovelace Health System — which was announced last month, and is closing in on purchasing a 20-plus acre site off of N.M. 6, west of the village.

The project has also garnered support from the town of Peralta and village of Bosque Farms.

(News-Bulletin reporter Julia Dendinger contributed to this story.)


-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.