Update 3:40 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9: Karla Sierra, advocacy director in El Paso for the LIBRE Initiative that was circulating a petition to allow voters to decide whether UMC can issue debt to fund $345 million in hospital improvements, said they submitted more than 25,000 signatures to the El Paso County Clerk’s Office at 2:41 p.m. Friday. The group needed at least 25,000 signatures.

A key step planned for Monday on University Medical Center’s proposal to issue $345 million in debt without voter approval may get delayed.

The LIBRE Initiative, an advocacy group that has been working to put UMC’s proposal before the voters, is poised to file a petition with at least 25,000 signatures on Friday or Monday to stop the El Paso County Commissioners Court from voting. The Commissioners Court is scheduled to vote during its Monday morning meeting on whether to authorize the debt, which would be repaid by property taxes.

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said the county is aware of the petition.

“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.

Karla Sierra, advocacy director in El Paso for the LIBRE Initiative, said they plan to submit a large batch of signatures on Friday. While she could not give El Paso Matters an exact count, Sierra said the group is close to meeting its goal and will continue its efforts through the weekend if necessary.

“Our intentions are not to dump thousands of signatures on the County Clerk’s Office Monday morning before the commissioners’ meeting,” Sierra said.

The petition challenges UMC’s plan seeking authorization from the Commissioners Court to issue non-voter approved debt for expansion projects that include an intensive care unit, nine additional operating rooms, a new Central El Paso clinic, a burn treatment center, and to build-out of the eighth floor of El Paso Children’s Hospital with 26 additional beds. The hospital is also seeking to build a new cancer treatment center.

State law allows voters to petition for an election regarding the sale of certificates of obligation before they are issued. The petition needs to be signed by 5% of registered voters, or just over 25,000 in El Paso County. 

UMC officials presented the expansion plan in June to the commissioners court. During the meeting, the court had reservations about final approval because of the short notice and lack of public participation.

The commissioners voted 3-2 in June to start the process for issuing the debt. The court scheduled a final vote for Sept. 12. Samaniego and County Commissioners Carlos Leon and Carl Robinson voted in favor. Commissioners David Stout and Illeana Holguin voted against.

UMC spokesperson Ryan Mielke said the hospital has done at least 71 community presentations since the June vote and is prepared for Monday’s meeting.

Hospital officials have said the repayment of the bond issue would add about 5.7 cents per $100 of property valuation to the hospital’s tax rate between 2023 and 2033. For the average value home in El Paso, currently $168,000, that would add $96 a year in additional property tax to the hospital.

From 2034 to 2045, that increase would drop to 2.9 cents per $100 of valuation, reducing the increase to about $49 a year on the average value home.

Holguin said she prefers UMC doing a voter-approved bond issuance.

“I still haven’t changed my mind regarding the fact that I just don’t believe that issuing certificates of obligation in this amount is the way that these projects should be financed,” Holguin said.

Robinson, who may attend the meeting virtually, said he will not make a final decision until he hears every person speak on Monday.

Samaniego, who voted in favor of starting the process of issuing the certificates of obligation, said he wanted to ensure the community had time to understand the financial implications as well as look at all of the options including a possible bond election.

Leon could not be reached for comment.

Stout said he had not made a final decision about which way he will vote on Monday. He does have some concerns regarding the two petitions and the intentions of those circulating them.

“I’m really disappointed in the fact that some of the private institutions here in town are behind these,” Stout said of the petitions to stop the court’s vote. “But it also worries me that one of them has been pushed by this LIBRE Initiative, which is funded by hard-core Republicans – folks that have constantly tried to undermine public health.”

All five members of El Paso County Commissioners Court are Democrats.

Since the June presentation to the commissioners, two petitions asking for a citizens’ vote have been circulating.

One was started by the LIBRE Initiative, a national conservative advocacy organization with ties to the Koch brothers funding network.

The other petition was started by the El Paso Coalition for Responsible Government. Former city Rep. Michiel Noe, an obstetrician-gynecologist with ties to the Hospitals of Providence, is listed as the self-appointed treasurer for the coalition.

Noe could not be reached for comment.

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