University Medical Center’s effort to issue $345 million in certificates of obligation to fund hospital expansion projects is on hold until October.
The El Paso County Commissioners Court on Monday voted unanimously to postpone the item to allow for verification of a petition asking that voters decide whether UMC can use the funding tool.
El Paso County Clerk Delia Briones said her office received three petitions Friday, but only one met the threshold to be considered with more than 5% of registered voters. She said that petition had 36,000 signatures.
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said the county will know by Oct. 3 whether enough signatures on the petition are valid.
“At that time we will take action,” Samaniego said.
The petition that met the threshold was submitted by the LIBRE Initiative, a national conservative advocacy organization with ties to the Koch brothers funding network. Karla Sierra, advocacy director in El Paso for the group, said they submitted the petition Friday.
If enough signatures are valid, the county would have to place the debt issuance on an upcoming election. If they’re not, the Commissioners Court will vote whether to issue the debt during its Oct. 3 meeting.
More than 30 people signed up for public comment on Monday during the court’s meeting, including several UMC physicians who advocated for the hospital funding.
“We are all vulnerable,” said Dr. Jose Burgos, chief of internal medicine at UMC. “If we are not vulnerable economically at some point in time, then we are all vulnerable when we are lacking with our health.”
Burgos said that UMC treats everyone regardless of income.
“We want to continue to do that,” Burgos said.
Marcella Van Hoove spoke against using certificates of obligation. She said UMC needs to revisit the list of projects to be funded, and return with a smaller list.
“It’s not the want issue, it’s the timing issue. We’ve got people and we have a whole mile of cars trying to get food, waiting in line for food,” Van Hoove said, referring to area food banks. “There’s got to be another well. This well is dried up.”
Jacob Cintron, El Paso County Hospital District president and CEO, said he understands that the process will have to unfold.
“We will continue this fight because we are committed to our community and our facility,” Cintron said.
UMC wants to issue debt without voter approval for projects such as an intensive care unit, nine additional operating rooms, a new Central El Paso clinic, a burn treatment center, a build-out of the eighth floor of El Paso Children’s Hospital with 26 additional beds and a new cancer treatment center.
UMC officials presented the plan for the first time in June, but county commissioners at that point had reservations about final approval because of the short notice and lack of public participation.
Commissioners Court at the time voted 3-2 in to start the process for issuing the debt, but they asked UMC to begin informing the public. The court scheduled a final vote for Sept. 12. Samaniego and Commissioners Carlos Leon and Carl Robinson voted in favor, while David Stout and Iliana Holguin voted against.
Since June, UMC has held more than 70 community informational meetings.
“They do need this bond. They do need community support,” said Robinson, adding that the hospital saved his life. “I’m not in favor of increasing taxes, I pay taxes as well. But I am in favor of quality health care.”
UMC 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, now at $168,000, that would add $96 a year to the hospital’s portion of the tax bill.
From 2034 to 2045, that increase would drop to 2.9 cents per $100 of valuation, reducing the increase to about $49.