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$84M at Stake in UNMH Tax Vote

By Martin Salazar
Journal Staff Writer
       University of New Mexico Hospital has been receiving money from a Bernalillo County property tax since 1954, with voters approving the tax like clockwork every eight years. Still, with $84 million a year on the line in this year's election, the hospital isn't taking anything for granted.
    A "What if?" campaign highlighting the hospital's specialized care has been launched by a committee that supports continuing the 6.4-mill tax. Hospital officials are emphasizing that voting for it won't raise property tax rates. (A mill is one-tenth of a cent.)
    The owner of a home valued at $195,000, the median price in Albuquerque, now pays about $416 a year in property taxes to support UNM Hospital.
    If Bernalillo County voters were to reject the ballot measure, their property taxes would go down by that much. But the hospital would face "a major cutback in programs," hospital Chief Executive Officer Stephen McKernan said. "Level-1 trauma, cancer, Children's Hospital, all of those things would be significantly negatively impacted by a loss of that."
    UNM health care facilities also would get $28.5 million from a general obligation bond question that will be on the ballot. The tax and bond questions will be decided during the Nov. 4 general election. Absentee and early voting are already under way.
    The $84 million property tax revenue supports all UNM hospitals, from the main one to the adult and children's psychiatric centers to Carrie Tingley Hospital and the Cancer Center. The amount generated from the hospital tax is roughly 13.8 percent of the hospital's $609 million annual budget. UNMH operates the state's only level-1 trauma center for serious injuries and National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.
    "We believe it's critical," McKernan said of the tax. "What we believe we've been able to do here at UNM Hospital is provide vital services to the community, cancer services, trauma services, children's services. We provide access to everybody in the county regardless of whether they're insured or not insured."
    McKernan said the property tax money has allowed the hospital to maintain a robust financial assistance program for patients. He said about 30,000 people are enrolled in the program, which helps low-income people get preventive health care.
    During fiscal year 2007, the hospital provided more than $152 million in uncompensated care to residents statewide who didn't have health insurance and couldn't afford to pay, said Billy Sparks, executive director of marketing and communications at UNM's Health Sciences Center. Most of that uncompensated care — $118 million worth — was provided to Bernalillo County residents. The hospital also gets a $1.2 million state appropriation and another $1.3 million from other counties to pay for that care.
    UNMH had 647,000 patient visits this past year, with more than 450,000 from Bernalillo County residents. Because it's the state's only teaching hospital, more than 600 students and trainees are there on any given day, McKernan said.
    The campaign is funded by the Committee to Renew the UNM Hospital Mill Levy, and no hospital money is involved, Sparks said. One of the direct mailers features a photo of a crying infant whose forehead is being caressed by a hand. In big red letters are the words, "WHAT IF?"
    "You never know if or when you'll need specialized treatment for your child," the mailer states. "But if you do, UNM Hospital provides the most advanced emergency neonatal and pediatric care in New Mexico."
    Eight years ago, the hospital requested an increase in the property tax from $33 million to $57 million. Voters endorsed the increase by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Since then, the hospital has benefited from rising home prices in Albuquerque. The tax now generates $84 million — $27 million more than the hospital had sought.
    McKernan said that in the past two years the hospital has hired an additional 250 nurses.