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New health science center makes list for bond funds

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Some legislative maneuvering was needed to include a proposed new health sciences center at UNM West in a statewide general obligation bond measure to be presented to voters in November.

Senate Bill 122, “General Obligation Bond Projects,” was amended to include the center after $8 million was shifted from a proposed senior center in Rio Rancho. The senior center was originally in the bond bill for $11.4 million. It would now get $3.4 million.

The bill was amended by House Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho. Harper called it a best-case scenario for Rio Rancho.

“In my mind, it’s a win-win for Rio Rancho because we were able to get this facility and really kick-start UNM West,” Harper said. “At the same time, we know we’re going to have a new senior center, which has had a lot of growth in Rio Rancho of our senior population.”

If the bill is signed by the governor and the bond issue approved by voters, the funds for UNM West would be matched by $12 million pledged by the Rio Rancho Governing Body through the city’s higher education gross receipts tax revenues.

Jamie Silva-Steele, president and CEO of the UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center, said she did not know why the project was not initially in the GO bond bill as UNM officials had discussed previously.

“I really can’t speak to why it didn’t get on the list; it is a main priority for the health sciences center university,” she said. “Just given the multitude of priorities for the larger UNM university, it probably is against all those other priorities (and) is probably why it didn’t make the list.”

The health science center was declared a priority for the university by UNM’s board of regents in August. Silva-Steele said the project was presented to the state Department of Higher Education in the fall, alongside the priorities of every other university in the state.

According to a report from Las Cruces PBS station KRWG, Department of Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron said UNM didn’t go through the department’s vetting process for the health sciences project.

Harper said the $3.4 million earmarked for the proposed senior center would help fund the project’s planning, design and land acquisition, and possibly the first phase of the center’s construction.

He said securing funds for the health sciences center is key to the city’s economic development.

“We’re at a critical phase in the development of the City Center,” Harper said. “We’re starting to see folks interested in developing and the UNM West campus. We’re starting to see some real life breathed into it and I think the transfer of some dollars from the senior project is so important for economic development and developing the GRT base for Rio Rancho.”

Harper said he is confident Gov. Susana Martinez will sign the GO bond bill, allowing the project to be placed before voters in the fall.

“I believe the governor knows how important this is to Rio Rancho and the governor’s always been a great supporter of Rio Rancho,” he said.