Related Stories

FARMINGTON — Closing McGee Park is one of San Juan County's options to prevent a more than $6 million deficit in a program that helps uninsured county residents pay medical bills and reimburses providers for care delivered to the uninsured.

But closing the park alone won't fix the problem, even though county officials cut the health care assistance program's reimbursement rates nearly in half last month. Taxes — in addition to possibly cutting more services — may also be imposed.

"These are the things we wanted to bring to your attention," County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said in a meeting on Wednesday.

San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter and San Juan County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner oversee a meeting on Wednesday at the San Juan County
San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter and San Juan County Commission Chairman Jack Fortner oversee a meeting on Wednesday at the San Juan County administrative offices in Aztec. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)

All five county commissioners and Sens. Steve Neville and Bill Sharer, R-San Juan County, and Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, attended the meeting. County administrators explained to the lawmakers the measures that must be taken to prevent bankrupting the county's health care assistance program in fiscal year 2016.

Senate Bill 268 is causing this problem, and miscommunication during its passage and one of Gov. Susana Martinez's line-item vetoes in it have worsened the problem, county officials and legislators say.

The bill requires counties pay one-twelfth of 1 percent of their gross receipts tax to a statewide fund — known as the Safety Net Care Pool — that helps New Mexico hospitals pay for uninsured care.

For San Juan County, that is a $3 million payment, and officials are pulling this money from the local health care program, formerly known as the "indigent health care program."

Neville said San Juan Regional Medical Center was guaranteed to receive significantly more money for uncompensated care when he voted in favor of the bill, but allocations were switched afterward. Other state legislators have agreed.

The hospital may receive $885,000 from the safety net pool, but if it had received more, Carpenter said, it could have made the county's $3 million payment instead.

The safety net pool would have also only required county payments for three years, but Martinez struck out that sunset clause, requiring counties to pay permanently.

The Daily Times reported in early July that at least eight counties are considering suing Martinez to overturn her veto. Rep. Paul Bandy, R-San Juan County, has said he would consider joining the suit.

Now, the county must decide whether to cut services, raise taxes or implement a combination of both.

McGee Park hosts about 1,300 events a year, and the county would save $412,000 if it closed the park, according to county documents. But that is only one of many possible cuts.

Closing the Riverview Golf Course would save the county $293,800, according to county documents. Closing the golf course but maintaining the grass would save $177,800, according to the documents.

Cutting the DWI Alternative Sentencing Division would save the health care program $935,000, according to county documents.

Laying off 10 percent of the county's 677 employees would save almost $4 million, according to county documents. Reducing all employees' salaries by 10 percent would save a similar amount.

Eliminating all health care program reimbursements to providers and only burying the deceased, a basic function of the program, would save $4.2 million, according to county documents. That would also cost Childhaven $20,500, and the agency's children's center would lose an estimated 500 night of care a year, according to the documents.

The three tax options that could be imposed would affect residents throughout the county, as well as those in Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield.

One option is a one-eighth of 1 percent gross receipts tax, which is estimated to earn about $4.3 million, according to county documents. This tax would cost shoppers 2.5 cents more for every $20 spent.

Another could be a one-twelfth of 1 percent gross receipts tax, and that is estimated to earn $3 million. This tax would add about 1.5 cents to every $20 spent.

The third could be a one-sixteenth of 1 percent gross receipts tax and would earn an estimated almost $2.2 million. Shoppers would pay 1.25 cents more on every $20.

"The commission wanted me to give them options," Carpenter said after the meeting. "We've given them options."

Now, he said, county residents need to tell their commissioners how to vote. He suggested in the meeting imposing either both the one-eighth and one-sixteenth of 1 percent gross receipts taxes or only the one-eighth increment and "finding" about $2 million elsewhere.

"Let's just pass the tax and cover it all. What the hell," Commissioner Keith Johns said after Carpenter finished speaking. "I'm not ready for that."

Commission Chairman Jack Fortner suggested another option.

Impose two taxes — the one-sixteenth and one-eighth of 1 percent gross receipts taxes — but add in sunset clauses, he said. The one-sixteenth tax could expire in two years, and the one-eighth could expire in three, he said.

Three major variables could pull the county out of this problem, he said in an interview Monday.

First, the governor's line item veto in the bill could be lifted, reinstating the bill's three-year sunset clause.

Secondly, instead of phasing it out, the state may reinstate "hold harmless payments" that have compensated counties and cities for a tax exemption lawmakers passed for food and medicine.

And, third, the economy could improve.

"And if none of these things happen — " Johns started to say in Wednesday's meeting.

"Then we'll know," Fortner said, cutting him off.

The taxes would give officials time to ease into a solution and health care providers time to prepare for less funding, Fortner said.

"I'm being optimistic," he said.

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.