APACHE COUNTY — The White Mountain Communities Special Healthcare District responded last week to an email from Apache County Attorney Michael Whiting.
The correspondence came as a result of the supervisors’ decision on May 7 to table the healthcare district’s request for an election by mail-in ballot, just as they did at the April meeting.
The White Mountain Communities Special Healthcare District is requesting an election concerning the district’s ability to levy a secondary property tax to support the district’s activities. The residents of the district voted down the reauthorization of the tax in the November 2018 election. Now the healthcare district is seeking to bring the issue before voters again.
In April, Jerry Campeau, chairman of the board for the district, said that what happened in last fall’s election was that voters authorized the healthcare district to conduct its operations, but did not re-authorize the tax that provides the funding for their operations.
According to the website of the White Mountain Communities Special Health Care District, the district provides funding for medical services in the communities of St. Johns, Springerville and Eagar. It provides funding for emergency medical services (EMS) to St. Johns Emergency Medical Services and to White Mountain Ambulance; for acute care services at White Mountain Regional Medical Center including emergency room operating funds and funds that have helped to buy new equipment for the medical-surgical wing of the hospital. The healthcare district also helps to fund primary care services to clinics in St. Johns and Round Valley that must serve all patients regardless of their ability to pay.
As a special taxing district, it must be reauthorized by voters every 10 years.
On May 7, several members of the board of directors of the healthcare district and their attorney, including chairman Jerry Campeau, attended the meeting when the issue came before the supervisors again, to plan for a November ballot.
Whiting then addressed the supervisors concerning the issue of the election.
“We’ve been doing some legal research. We’re going to be sued either way, but we’d like to get the question right,” he said, but offered no further explanation.
District II Supervisor Alton Joe Shepherd made a motion to table, and the supervisors approved that motion without asking any questions of Whiting.
At the close of the vote, the group from the healthcare district rapidly exited the meeting and began talking with one another in the lobby, but were promptly summoned back into the meeting.
Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Joe Shirley of District I, noted that the representatives of the healthcare district were supposed to speak before the board took their vote and belatedly offered them the opportunity.
Campeau took the microphone.
“We’ve not been notified there was an issue with legality. No one notified myself our our counsel,” he said. “The action has been taken,” Campeau added. “We just keep getting either tabled or rejected.”
In telephone interviews following the meeting, Campeau said that the healthcare district had been in regular communication with Angela Romero, the county elections director and County Manager Ryan Patterson, and had never received an indiction that there were any problems or legal issues in conjunction with the proposed election.
“That action came as a surprise,” he said.
Exchange of letters
Following the meeting, Whiting sent an email to the healthcare district’s attorney, addressing some of the concerns he alluded to in the meeting, and requested a memo in which the district lays out their legal basis for holding the election. The district’s attorney, Kristin Makin of Sims-Makin of Phoenix, responded May 21.
The district’s lawyers responded that Arizona law requires the district to levy a tax to support its work and that any tax must be approved by voters, thus the need for an election. Further, they stated that the county has no legal basis to deny them an election.
The county’s concern, Whiting says, is about the legality of holding the election in 2019 because an election law passed in 2012 consolidates local elections into even-numbered years for small (non-charter) cities and towns.
The district’s lawyers responded that the prohibition of odd-numbered-year elections only applies if candidates are on the ballot. In this case, voters would be asked to vote only for a secondary tax, so an election in the odd-year of 2019 is permissible. They also claim that the district can have an election, even a “special election” on any date, but chose November 5, 2019, because that’s when the county had scheduled an election for other matters, too.
Another area of concern, Whiting says, is “that not all citizens … in the District like the idea of being taxed or like the people associated with the District. There is a very vocal group who hold strong feelings regarding how the District’s tax money is being spent,” and that the Board is very concerned about being sued by this (unidentified group) that has the “means, motivation and ability to sue the county and carry it through the entire legal process.”
Whiting concedes that his political concerns are not “relevant” to the issue of whether the District has the legal right to hold an election, but provides the information about this “group” so that the District can appreciate the context of the county’s concerns.
“As you will note from the November 2018 election, the voters told the district to go ahead and spend the rest of the money it had, but they did not want to be taxed any further,” Whiting wrote.
However, he did not identify anyone in particular opposed to the election, and no one has attended the board of supervisors meetings to speak against the healthcare district.
The district says that “there is an inherent contradiction in the voters’ approval” of the district’s continued operation but their disapproval of the secondary tax, and that their approval of the district’s continued operation “implies the voters would authorize the tax” because the district can’t continue to operate without the tax.
Whiting also asked the healthcare district to submit an analysis of how they have spent their tax dollars over the last 10 years. “This would go a long ways in helping members of the District and would really help the public relations perception of the District,” he wrote.
The district responded that its “operations and finances have always been, and will remain, completely transparent and a matter of public record” and its records are filed directly with the county.
Further, says the district, the county “has no authority to deny an approval of the District’s call of the election based on its analysis or judgment of the District’s operational decisions.”
Campeau said the healthcare district has requested to be on the agenda for the June 4 board of supervisors meeting.