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Our Opinion: Pay it off, already

April 07, 2001

Courtesy of a deal between the Calexico Special Financing Authority and the United Taxpayers' of Imperial County, the Heffernan Memorial Hospital District will not receive $250,000 a year it had hoped would be available to open an urgent-care center in the vacant Calexico Hospital.

The authority, made up of members of the Calexico City Council and the hospital board, was put in place to purchase the more than $9 million in bonds paying off past debts of Calexico Hospital. Recently, the SFA approved efforts to refinance the bonds.

In the refinancing process, the hospital board was hoping to obtain $1.5 million to pay other hospital debts not covered by the bonds. That was supposed to free some $250,000 a year in sales tax money the district receives that is tied up by those other debts.

But that's not going to happen.

SFA treasurer Rudolfo Moreno, also a member of the taxpayers' group, brokered a deal with the authority to give the district the $1.5 million it seeks but apply the $250,000 to pay off the bond issue. It was a move that may have been necessary to avoid a lawsuit against the SFA by Moreno and the taxpayers' association.

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The loss of that $250,000 a year to the hospital board for medical services really isn't that big of a loss for Calexico.

In all reality, any operations that would have been set up at Calexico Hospital would provide little more than what is being offered by clinics in Calexico being run by Clinicas De Salud Del Pueblo, El Centro Regional Medical Center and Pioneers Memorial Hospital, all of which have physicians on staff.

Calexico Hospital may be called a hospital but it could never be such because of coming earthquake codes and other regulations that would make the institution obsolete in the eyes of the state. Some estimates have placed earthquake retrofitting costs at the Birch Avenue building at more than $1 million.

That $250,000 will be better served by paying off the bond debt early. It's time to get that monkey off the backs of Calexicans. For far too long taxpayers have had to suffer an additional half-cent sales tax to fund ineffective management of a hospital and ineffective decision-making by a hospital board.

There is a silver-lining to the district's stormy predicament — the board gets $1.5 million to pay off debts not covered by the bonds, debts that include a $450,000 loan made to the district by the city Redevelopment Agency.

Those bills need to be paid quickly. It seems the district keeps accumulating debt, which is likely one of the main reasons the district didn't get its $250,000 in the first place.

Calexico needs a hospital. We all know that. Whether the district board or future district boards can make that a reality remains to be seen. What needs to be demonstrated now is the willingness to make good of district debts.

Maybe one of these days the district will prove itself worthy of handling money. That hasn't been the case in a long time.

Still, the district shouldn't give up in its efforts to bring in a clinic operator to Calexico Hospital. There could be a reputable operator out there that might cause everybody to rethink their positions and return a portion of the district's $250,000 for operating expenses.

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