County waits on judge for hospital ruling

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Valencia County Commissioner have asked the courts to not force the issue of a health care facilities contract three commissioners accidentally signed last July.

At a special meeting Friday, the five commissioners voted unanimously to ask the district court to first rule on current litigation between the county and the city of Belen and the village of Los Lunas before the county takes any action under the HCF contract between the county and Ameris Acquisitions.

"The county does not want to have to execute the health care facilities contract until the court has had the opportunity to consider whether the original agreement is valid," said county attorney David Pato. "We are asking the court to hold our obligations in abeyance, so we don't enter into a contract with a provider only to find later that it is invalid."

After the county signed an agreement with Belen in July, Los Lunas filed a lawsuit alleging that the county could not delegate its authority to choose a hospital provider to Belen. The village also claims that former county Commissioner Donald Holliday's tie-breaking vote on the agreement was invalid because he was no longer a sitting commissioner.

The agreement between Belen and the county directed the city to put out a request for proposal to find a provider to build and operate a hospital on city-owned property on Christopher Road.

At that same July meeting, commissioners Charles Eaton, Mary Andersen and Holliday — the same three who voted for the agreement with Belen — also signed a HCF contract with an at-the-time unnamed provider.

Chairman Eaton says the HCF contract was mistakenly signed that day. A copy of the contract was given to the commissioners for their review, and ultimately required to be part of Belen's RFP.

It was made part of the RFP so potential providers would know how the county planned to disburse the nearly $22 million in taxpayer dollars being collected for the maintenance and operation of the hospital.

Under the terms of the agreement with Belen, the county is required to execute a contract with a provider of its choice 45 days after selection.

The city put out the RFP in August and Ameris was the only company to respond. Late in October, the city council voted 4-0 to accept an evaluation committee's recommendation that Belen contract with Ameris for the lease of the property on Christopher Road and construction and operation of a hospital. A final draft of that contract has not been completed to date.

On Nov. 19, 2013, the HCF contract was signed by Ameris Acquisitions President and CEO K. Robert Bauer Jr.

Both Eaton and Pato said they had no knowledge that the contract was signed by three commissioners, let alone that it was being sent to Ameris. Since the approval of the agreement between the county and Belen, city officials have not made a formal appearance before the commissioners to give an update on the hospital project or notify them of its choice of provider.

At Friday's meeting, Belen's attorney Charles Rennick said presenting the HCF contract to Ameris was part of the city's duties under the terms of the agreement between the two bodies.

"The (agreement) specified certain obligations of both parties — of Valencia County and of the city of Belen," Rennick said. "The city's obligations were to issue an RFP to find a provider, to submit a financing plan and to submit the health care facility contract to the provider. The city has done all of that.

"The county's obligation was to enter into a contract with the provider. It has done that. Then, upon issuance of a license to the hospital, to disburse the mill levy. I think both parties are in complete compliance."

County Commissioner Alicia Aguilar said she wouldn't respond to Rennick's comments due to the litigation with the village, and referred the matter to the county attorney.

County Attorney Adren Nance said he did not agree with Rennick, "certainly with respect to the health care facilities contract."

Nance continued, saying the city provided a packet to the county on Friday, Jan. 24, stating that it had completed the RFP.

"The position of the city is that initiates the next step — the county entering into a health care facilities contract," he said. "They say the RFP was completed earlier; to my knowledge, the county was not given notice of earlier completion of the RFP."

Aguilar said she wants to see a level playing field for the project, and she doesn't favor Belen or Los Lunas.

In 2012, Miller Architects, an Oklahoma City-based company announced it was building a hospital in Los Lunas.

She then asked about the company that signed the HCF contract, Ameris Acquisitions, based in Nashville, Tenn.

On the front page of the contract, written in blue felt-tipped pen under the blanks containing the company's name are the words, "New Mexico corporation 'to be created.'"

"A New Mexico corporation to be created? Did we go into a contract with a company that is not a New Mexico corporation?" Aguilar asked.

Belen City Councilor Jerah Cordova had come to the podium to field any questions from the commissioners, but declined to answer that one due to the litigation, he said.

A search of the New Mexico Secretary of State's website — the state agency New Mexico corporations must register with — did not find a company called Ameris Acquisitions or any variation of that name.

In the documents sent to the county on Jan. 24, Aguilar pointed out there was reference to Belen or the county floating bonds for construction or operation, and asked for clarification from Cordova.

"We have stated in the past, this won't be a tax burden on the community beyond the mill levy," Cordova said.

"It's $57 million in bonds. It bothers me that in writing, we are talking about taxpayers and bonds," Aguilar replied. "If this is a private venture, why is it here?"

Cordova said the city "does hold firm to the notion that residents won't see further tax burden, beyond what they have been carrying for the last seven years with no results."

Eaton said he would not support any hospital, whether in the northern or southern part of the county, that would obligate taxpayers to any financial burden beyond the mill levy property owners are already paying.

"I have always said I will not go beyond the mill levy, unless it is approved by the voters," Eaton said.

He touched on the commissioner's signatures on the HCF contract, saying it was "purely an exhibit as to how the mill levy would be disbursed. When I was part of the drafting (of the HCF contract), I didn't want to see any money sent out all at once," Eaton said. "I wanted it performance based so we can see the progress made at this facility."

Eaton said the HCF contract spelled out the five-year time line for disbursement of the mill levy, as well as the requirement that the provider guarantee a 24-hour emergency room for Valencia County residents.

"I didn't want to see a part-time ER. There is language in there that is important," he said. "The most important is to never further obligate the taxpayers for further debt, beyond the mill levy."


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