With the renewed effort to “do something” about the delayed county hospital project, Rep. Alonzo Baldonado (R-Los Lunas) has sponsored House Bill 96, in an effort to revamp the state’s Hospital Funding Act and create a mechanism to jump start the stalled project.
A 2.75 mill levy was approved by Valencia County voters in November 2006 to support a hospital in the county, but the project has been mired in lawsuits for nearly the entire 10 years since.
During the collection period of the levy — from 2007 to 2014 — taxpayers have paid nearly $25 million for a hospital that still doesn’t exist.
“This is the taxpayers money. Someone has to lead,” Baldonado said. “We need to put this to bed. Either build the hospital or give the money back.”
The proposed bill stipulates the project paid for by a mill levy must begin within four years of the effective date of the levy, “provided the ballot measure shall not extend the beginning date of the services beyond seven years.”
Baldonado said the seven-year timeline is included in case a county, prior to implementing a mill levy, knows the project will take longer than four years to begin and includes that information in the ballot measure to voters.
If the services haven’t begun after four years or by the deadline set in the ballot measure, then any qualified elector of the county or owner of property that was assessed the mill levy may petition county commissioners for action.
The News-Bulletin raised the point that not all qualified electors in the county are property owners subject to the levy and not all property owners live in the county.
Baldonado said that was a good point and might be something he would need to “tweak” in the bill.
“We have owners who don’t vote and voters who don’t own property,” he said.
On Jan. 25, the health and human services committee passed the bill 6 to 1, and referred it on to the taxation and revenue committee.
The bill went before the second committee Monday, but was tabled after a tie vote, Baldonado said
“I’m still going to work to get it out (of committee). I need to make some changes,” he said. “People are worried about having to give the money back either in our county or another. It’s a big deal.”
Within a year of a petition for action, the commissioners have three options — begin the project, submit a proposal to county voters to use the mill levy revenues for an alternative purpose authorized by statute or refund the money to those who were assessed the tax.
Baldonado said an alternative purpose for the money could be any of the allowed uses of mill levy funds.
“There are a lot of uses,” he said.
Whether the public will approve an alternative use of the money comes down to how the question is written, the representative said.
“The commission has to be wise,” he said. “If you go back 10 years, if this had been vetted prior to putting it on ballot — said where it would be built, who would be the provider, who would operate it — we wouldn’t be in this. If it had been less open ended we wouldn’t be in a complete meltdown.”
Newly elected Valencia County Treasurer Deseri Sichler said returning millions of dollars to taxpayers would be challenging, to say the least.
“It’s a matter of accurately going through the books, thousands of accounts, and accurately figuring out who paid what,” Sichler said.
The scenario of property having changed owners over the years also complicates a potential refund process.
“We are possibly looking for who paid the taxes at the beginning of the levy in 2007 and then it was sold in 2010,” she said. “Where is the original property owner? What is the correct portion that goes back to them?”
Sichler also said she wasn’t clear as to what would happen to the interest being generated by the mill levy since it was deposited in a Bank of the West money market account that earns less than 1 percent interest.
“Does the interest go to the county? Is it divided up and given back? Legally, we just don’t know,” the treasurer said. “This effects the entire state but it’s largely for Valencia County. We have 200,000 accounts total. That volume makes it challenging. I just hope we can do what the taxpayers want.”
Baldonado said the bill would apply to the county hospital mill levy even though the law wasn’t in place when it was in effect.
“It doesn’t have language limiting it to only going forward. It just starts and is in effect for any mill levy,” he said. “I will work on this today and get it written right. I’m not trying to pick on treasurers but this is taxpayers’ money and we need to move on.”