A key step scheduled for Monday on University Medical Center’s proposal to borrow $345 million without voter approval may be postponed.
The LIBRE Initiative, an advocacy group working to get UMC’s proposal before voters, plans to file a petition with at least 25,000 signatures on Friday or Monday to prevent the El Paso County Commissioners Court from voting. The Commissioners’ Court is scheduled to vote on whether to authorize the debt, which would be repaid through property taxes, during its Monday morning meeting.
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego confirmed that the petition has been received.
“It looks like they are going to reach the 25,000 signatures,” Samaniego said, adding that if the signatures are submitted to the El Paso County Clerk’s office, the scheduled vote would either be delayed or stopped to give the County Clerk’s Office time to verify the petition signatures.
According to Karla Sierra, the LIBRE Initiative’s advocacy director in El Paso, they plan to submit a large number of signatures on Friday. While Sierra was unable to provide an exact count, she stated that El Paso Matters is close to meeting its goal and will continue its efforts through the weekend if necessary.
The petition opposes UMC’s plan to seek Commissioners Court approval to issue non-voter approved debt for expansion projects such as an intensive care unit, nine additional operating rooms, a new Central El Paso clinic, a burn treatment center, and the expansion of El Paso Children’s Hospital’s eighth floor with 26 additional beds. In addition, the hospital is looking to build a new cancer treatment center.
Voters can petition for an election on the sale of certificates of obligation before they are issued under state law. The petition must be signed by 5% of registered voters, or slightly more than 25,000 people in El Paso County.
UMC officials presented the expansion plan to the commissioners’ court in June. Because of the short notice and lack of public participation, the court expressed reservations about final approval during the meeting.
In June, the commissioners voted 3-2 to begin the process of issuing the debt. The court set a final vote for September 12th. County Commissioners Carlos Leon and Carl Robinson, as well as Samaniego, voted in favor. David Stout and Illeana Holguin, both commissioners, voted no. According to UMC spokesperson Ryan Mielke, the hospital has done at least 71 community presentations since the June vote and is ready for the meeting on Monday.
According to hospital officials, the repayment of the bond issue would raise the hospital’s tax rate by about 5.7 cents per $100 of property valuation between 2023 and 2033. For the average home in El Paso, which is currently $168,000, that would mean an additional $96 in property tax to the hospital each year.
From 2034 to 2045, the increase would be 2.9 cents per $100 of valuation, amounting to about $49 per year on the average-priced home.
Robinson, who may attend the meeting virtually, stated that he will not make a final decision until he has heard from everyone speak on Monday.
Samaniego, who voted in favor of beginning the process of issuing certificates of obligation, stated that he wanted to give the community enough time to understand the financial implications and consider all options, including a possible bond election.
Stout stated that he has not made a final decision on how he will vote on Monday. He is concerned about the two petitions and the intentions of those who are circulating them.
“I’m really disappointed that some of the private institutions here in town are behind these,” Stout said of the petitions to prevent the court from voting. “But it also concerns me that one of them has been pushed by the LIBRE Initiative, which is funded by hard-core Republicans – people who have repeatedly attempted to undermine public health.”
The LIBRE Initiative, a national conservative advocacy organization with ties to the Koch brothers’ funding network, launched one.
The El Paso Coalition for Responsible Government started the other petition. Former city representative Michiel Noe, an obstetrician-gynecologist with ties to the Hospitals of Providence, is listed as the coalition’s self-appointed treasurer.