LL contemplates legal action over mill levy

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After a closed executive session at July 25 Los Lunas Village Council meeting, the vote was unanimous to pursue legal action in response to the Valencia County Commission decision to award mill levy money to a hospital in Belen.

That same day, the Belen City Council approved the agreement with the county commission.

Several county residents spoke out against the commission's decision, and implored the council to seek legal action.

"As you can tell, I'm not a youngster, which means I need a hospital here," said Alice Torwirt, a city of Rio Communities resident. "Back in '06 when we voted for the mill levy, we voted to tax ourselves.

"It was our understanding that we would have a hospital that would serve the whole community, and the first hospital to reach substantial completion would get that mill levy. Now, all through these years … three of our commissioners, every time it's 3-2, have fought it. It's just not right."

Clark Metcalf, also a resident of Rio Communities, said he is worried that the county is working to undermine a hospital in Valencia County, and urged the village to pursue litigation.

At the July 17 county commission meeting, the commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of entering into an agreement to contract with a health care provider chosen by the city of Belen.

Last year, the village of Los Lunas began working with Miller Architects, an Oklahoma company, to develop a hospital in the municipality.

At different times during that process, Miller said it did and did not need the mill levy in order for the Los Lunas hospital to be successful.

Earlier this year, the commissioners submitted questions about the project to Miller and the Belen project developer, Ameris, to gather the same information about both projects and make a final decision as to which project would receive the mill levy funds.

Ultimately Miller committed to start building next spring without the assistance of the funds, and was not considered for the mill levy by the commission.

The council and village attorney, Larry Guggino, are concerned about the legality of those procedures.

"We question whether, under the Hospital Funding Act, the county can enter into a contract with Belen that is not a joint powers agreement," Guggino said.

He is looking into whether it is correct protocol for the county commissioners to give the city of Belen council the authority to select a health care provider, when it is the county that would be entering into a contract with the provider.

"The county has the authority to enter into a health care services contract with a health care provider, but what they're doing is, they're giving the authority to Belen to find someone to contract with," Guggino said. "That's an act that the county should do. They shouldn't give it to someone else to do … It's our position that they can't legally assign their right to contract to some other entity."

Guggino also questioned whether Valencia County Commissioner Donald Holliday was still a resident of his district at the time the vote was taken.

Holliday, the commissioner for District 5, tendered his letter of resignation on July 18, effective July 31. In an interview in June, Holliday said he and his wife had sold their home in the village of Bosque Farms and would need to vacate the property by August.

"The mill levy funds were voted in November of 2006, and we know what it stood for," said Las Maravillas resident Mike Wood. "And what they've done is totally unlawful for how they've handled this issue."

Susan Moran, of Tierra Grande said a hospital in Los Lunas would benefit the greatest number of county residents, and that the agreement between the county and Belen seems to skirt around the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration.

"It smacks of questionable ethics to me," Moran said.

To receive the mill levy funds, the city of Belen must now issue a request for proposals for a provider, submit a financial plan explaining construction and equipping of the proposed Belen site hospital and create a health care facilities contract for the county to use with the chosen provider.

Steve Tomita, the city's planning and economic development director, said the RFP will be issued Aug. 1.

(News-Bulletin reporters Julia M. Dendinger and Abigail R. Ortiz contributed to this article.)


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