The El Paso County Hospital District is looking to issue up to $400 million in certificates of obligation – bonds that don’t require voter approval – for various improvements to the University Medical Center of El Paso.

The hospital district made a presentation to the El Paso County Commissioners Court on Thursday, but commissioners asked for time for public input before voting whether to approve a required notice of intent to issue the debt later this year. Commissioners will revisit the hospital district’s request on June 27.

Funding from the bonds would go toward expanding the emergency room, cancer center, children’s inpatient surgery and emergency department, burn operating rooms and ambulatory surgery services, as well as a neighborhood health center in Central El Paso. The clinic, which would serve the Central and Mission Valley areas, would focus on geriatrics, include 50 exam rooms for primary care, and feature a new urgent care center.

Michael Nuñez, the hospital district’s chief financial officer, said the bonds would increase the tax rate by less than 6 cents for the first 10 years and then just under 3 cents for years 11 through 25.

That translates to an additional $55.40 a year in taxes on a $100,000 home the first 10 years or about $4.62 a month, Nuñez said. After the first 10 years, it would mean an increase of  $2.28 a month or $27.40 a year on the same value home.

Nuñez also said the bond issue would not have a negative impact on the hospital district’s bond rating.

“It’s been nine years since we have had a bond. It’s the first time I’ve asked for a bond,” said Jacob Cintron, who in 2016 became president and CEO of University Medical Center and the hospital district. 

Cintron emphasized the hospital’s and health care worker’s response following the Aug. 3, 2019, terror attack and the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several victims of the mass shooting that killed 23 people and injured dozens more were treated at UMC. The hospital was also at the epicenter of treating thousands of patients who contracted COVID-19 and played a key role in providing vaccinations when the city was backlogged with its vaccine rollout.

University Medical Center of El Paso (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

Construction for UMC’s main hospital on Alameda Avenue was completed in 1961. The hospital had several renovations in recent years and clinics were built with $152 million in certificates of obligation approved in 2013. The bonds were also used to add emergency rooms to the Northeast and East Side clinics.

While the commissioners were largely in agreement that the expansion and capital projects are needed, they were concerned the public needed more time to understand the implications of the debt.

Commissioner Iliana Holguin said the public has not had enough time to “digest” the information. Commissioner Carlos Leon also said there needs to be more time for public outreach.

“We need to have the public involved in our discussions and ask them, ‘What is it that you want us to do?’ And that they understand exactly what the ramifications are if we vote yes, and what the ramifications are if we vote it down,” said Leon, adding that he understands the need for hospital improvements because he has had to go out of town for cancer treatments.

The hospital district’s board approved a resolution during its meeting Tuesday to request that county commissioners authorize the debt issuance notice. The county’s agenda did not include backup or a presentation on UMC’s request until Wednesday afternoon.

“We should have an extensive public outreach campaign to make sure that the community understands why UMC and why the Commissioners Court may feel that we need this,” Commissioner David Stout said. “It’s a lot – it’s half a billion dollars that we’re asking taxpayers to be on the hook for over the next 25 years.”

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper...