Blame game derails Holy Cross Medical Center support discussion

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 2/6/20

A Taos County Commission meeting on Tuesday (Feb. 4) meant to, in part, discuss the future of public funding for Holy Cross Medical Center, ultimately devolved into a shouting match over the hospital's administration that seemed to move commissioners further from an answer to one of the most critical financial questions they face.

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Blame game derails Holy Cross Medical Center support discussion

Posted

A Taos County Commission meeting on Tuesday (Feb. 4) meant to, in part, discuss the future of public funding for Holy Cross Medical Center, ultimately devolved into a shouting match over the hospital's administration that seemed to move commissioners further from an answer to one of the most critical financial questions they face.

The board at Holy Cross made its case last year as to why the county should quadruple and extend its current mill levy allotment from 1 to 4.25 over eight years. On Tuesday, commissioners sought public input regarding another option: to reallocate discretionary gross receipts tax revenue toward the hospital, likely to be combined with some level of continued mill levy support.

The meeting began evenly enough, with several members of the public, including a now familiar crowd of past and current employees at Holy Cross, taking the microphone to laud the hospital for the career opportunities it has offered them and argue why the facility is a crucial component of the county's economic makeup.

Lenora Cisneros, director of administrative services for the hospital, said that multiple generations of her family have found meaningful employment through Holy Cross. A former patient who had been diagnosed with malaria said he would not have received proper care for his illness without a quality local hospital that could provide him with regular blood tests.

Others, however, came to hammer away at the hospital's top administrator, Bill Patten, whom they have blamed for the hospital's need for financial support, in spite of a wave of rural hospital closures nationally, which have prompted other communities to offer a level of tax support often far greater than what Holy Cross has so far received from Taos County.

County voters passed a 1 mill tax increase to support the hospital during a 2016 special election, but that's set to sunset in June. While back taxes will continue to come in for some time after that, the hospital is hoping for a solution that will prevent any gap in public support as it seeks to cover rising service costs, increased salaries for quality health care personnel and what board members have argued to be necessary capital expenditures to its facilities on Weimer Road. Patten is already discussing a wage increase for nursing staff with union representatives in anticipation of continued public funding.

The county commission has been weighing its options for several months now. New legislation passed last year in Santa Fe presents another for them to consider.

"Last year there was a change in the tax laws and counties were given additional discretion on gross receipts tax that we didn't have before, and that's why we have this opportunity," District IV Commissioner and board chairman Tom Blankenhorn explained.

The county has a 7/16 GRT tax at its discretion, which amounts to around $3 million dollars annually. Commissioners passed on a proposal from the hospital to once again pose the question of a mill levy increase in a special election, and instead are considering which options they will present to voters in the November general election.

GRT, however, can either be presented to voters or passed by ordinance through the commission and is seen by some as a way to more evenly distribute the tax burden required to keep Holy Cross afloat. Unlike a mill levy, a sales tax would also not sunset at a specific date, but would be ongoing unless a future commission took action to end it.

At a prior commission meeting, District I Commissioner Jim Fambro had suggested dedicating 3/16 - or around $1.3 to 1.4 million - to the hospital each year, combined with a continued 1 mill in property tax, for a total of roughly $2.8 million annually to support the facility. His proposal died when put to a vote.

But as a meaningful financial discussion began to gain steam Tuesday, District V Commissioner Candyce O'Donnell and District II Commissioner Mark Gallegos both suggested that any continued public support should be contingent on granting the commission power to fire Patten if they so chose and assume ownership of capital equipment if the hospital were to go bankrupt.

Much of the public funding the hospital has received, they argued, has been spent on purchasing new equipment to replace outdated machines in a building that is leased by the county.

O'Donnell also criticized Patten's compensation, saying he makes $350,000 a year in salary, a fact which Patten later corrected, saying he recently was granted a raise by the hospital board that puts him just over $300,000 in annual compensation.

"We do not run the hospital," Blankenhorn responded, "and it seems to me that both commissioner Gallegos and vice chair O'Donnell are suggesting that we make managerial decisions as if we are competent to run the hospital. ...

"Not only that but the notion that management has driven the hospital into the ground just simply does not comport with the facts. The facts are the hospital has been under financial distress for at least eight years, due to many changes in the health structure of our country. And also, please remember, every rural hospital in the state that is succeeding is doing so because they have local tax revenues to support them."

County manager Brent Jaramillo said the board would have to be prepared to vote in March on a resolution regarding continued support for the hospital.

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