Los Lunas to appeal hospital mill levy decision

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The legal wrangling over the mill levy dedicated for the operations and maintenance for a hospital in Valencia County is far from over.

The Los Lunas Village Council directed their attorney last week to file an appeal of a judge’s ruling saying the village didn’t have standing to bring a lawsuit against Valencia County and the city of Belen regarding the award of the hospital mill levy.

In early May, Second Judicial District Court Judge Valerie Huling ruled that the village did not have standing to bring a case against Belen and the county because Los Lunas hasn’t suffered any harm from the county’s decision and that it’s too speculative that it did. Huling then granted the motions to dismiss the case.

The village’s lawsuit was in response to the county commission’s decision to enter into a contract with a health care provider of the Belen City Council’s choosing and award about $22 million in county-generated mill levy funds to a Belen hospital project.

In 2006, county voters approved a mill levy and a property tax to fund the operations and maintenance of a hospital in Valencia County. That hospital has yet to be built, and the tax expires in 2015.

Last July, county commissioners decided to enter a memorandum of agreement with Belen for the city to select a health care provider. The village of Los Lunas filed a lawsuit shortly after the commission’s decision.

Larry Guggino Jr., the village’s attorney, said the appeal is based on standing, saying that the judge ruled because she thought the village of Los Lunas wasn’t an interested party.

“We alleged two types of standings, one is traditional, which basically means that the action of the county commission harmed us and that the court could readdress it,” he said. “And when the court made a decision, it would resolve the harm to the village.”

The second type of standing the village alleged, Guggino said, regarded the public interest doctrine. It says if a governmental entity performs an action that is in violation of the New Mexico Constitution, generally, any citizen has standing to bring that before a court.

“In this case, we alleged that (former county commissioner) Donald Holliday, at the time he voted, was no longer a resident of his commission district. The Constitution says that if you have moved away from your district with the intent not to reside there, you’re no longer a county commissioner and the seat is vacant.”

The Los Lunas attorney says because Holliday had already moved, he couldn’t vote. Holliday, who cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the MOA between the county and the city of Belen, no longer owned a residence or resided in his district or in the county at the time of the vote, he said.

“We do have standing, and we disagree that we don’t,” Guggino said. “Mainly we disagree because there’s a constitutional violation.”

According to Guggino, he will file a notice of appeal in district court and to the Court of Appeals. After that, the process begins in which the attorney will file a docketing statement and the court will then decide what calendar to put the case on.

The court can either affirm or reverse Judge Huling’s decision, Guggino said.

“If they reverse it and rule that the village of Los Lunas does in fact have standing, then we’ll go forward with the lawsuit … and truly find out where Donald Holliday lived on that date,” he said.

In 2012, the village began working with Miller Architects, an Oklahoma-based company, that plans to develop a privately-owned hospital in Los Lunas. Darin Miller, the CEO of Miller Architects, initially said the Valencia Region Medical Center didn’t need the mill levy funding for the hospital, but later admitted the money was needed to operate additional services at satellite clinics.

The city of Belen has been working with Ameris Management Services LLC, from Tennessee, to build a nonprofit, full-service hospital on Christopher Road near Interstate 25.

Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova reacted to the appeal, saying that it’s “nothing more than a delay tactic by the village of Los Lunas.

“By playing these political games, they’re doing harm to local residents who need better health care and emergency services,” Cordova said. “Belen will be responding strongly and moving our project toward financing and construction.”

Valencia County Commission Chairman Charles Eaton said the village’s decision to appeal wasn’t a surprise to him.

“All this does is further delay bringing health care to Valencia County, unfortunately,” Eaton said.

The chairman said in recent conversations with Ameris representatives, the company was prepared to address the county commission fairly soon to formalize a finance and management plan to move froward with the Belen site.

“This will further delay that. This is something taxpayers are frustrated with and want an end to,” Eaton said. “We are continuously sending people to Albuquerque facilities and there are long waits. I hope we can end that fairly soon with the construction of a facility when litigation comes to an end.”


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