Voter-approved bond to pay for county hospital upgrades

The Arizona Republic
Thursday, November 6, 2014
Michelle Ye Hee Lee

Voters handily agreed Tuesday to finance a major renovation of the Valley's only public health-care system through bonds that will cost taxpayers $1.6 billion with interest over the next three decades.

Unofficial returns showed 63 percent of Maricopa County voters favored Proposition 480. The ballot measure allows Maricopa Integrated Health System to issue $935 million in general obligation bonds to build a new county hospital, upgrade inpatient and outpatient clinics, and expand behavioral health facilities.

The bonds will be retired through secondary property taxes.

Voters should not expect to see immediate construction at the MIHS complex at 24th and Roosevelt streets, or at the system's outpatient clinics located Valley-wide. The planning process for construction could take up to two years, MIHS Chief Executive Steve Purves said.
The projects will be phased in, but the specific timeline will be developed through talks with the health care community, patients and MIHS staff, Purves said.

The measure proposes spending $571 million on acute-care facilities, including a new Maricopa Medical Center; $226 million for new behavioral-health facilities; and $138 million for renovated and new outpatient health facilities.

MIHS is a safety-net health-care system that provides care for the Valley's uninsured and poor patients. It also is a teaching hospital for physicians, nurses and other health-care professionals.

The average homeowner will pay $13.74 more a year per $100,000 of a home's assessed valuation to finance the bonds, according to MIHS.

Proponents had argued the bond would help right-size MIHS based on the community's needs. Opponents questioned why taxpayers should pay more, especially because more Arizonans will be covered through the state's Medicaid expansion.

The Prop. 480 campaign significantly outpaced opponents in raising money, bankrolling an aggressive publicity blitz that flooded airwaves and billboards Valley-wide. The opposition formalized about a month before early voting began. By then, the pro campaign had raised nearly $1 million.

The latest campaign finance documents showed the Vote No on Prop. 480 campaign raised $79,000, the majority of that from the Arizona Tax Research Association, which led the campaign. Yes on 480 raised $1.3 million, mainly from MIHS administration and health-care staff, and the construction industry.

While the opposition campaign made a last-minute push, it could not hold up against the ground proponents gained early. ATRA President Kevin McCarthy said he was not surprised the opposition effort failed.

"With the limited resources we have, we did the best job to communicate the message. But for a county as big as Maricopa County, you're not going to be able to do that with word of mouth and social media, not when the other side has $2 million," McCarthy said.
The $2 million figure cited by McCarthy is the pro campaign's funds combined with money spent on a separate, taxpayer-funded MIHS marketing campaign. Opponents criticized MIHS for launching an education campaign in June, immediately after the pro-Prop. 480 campaign formed.

MIHS spent nearly $570,000 between June 19 and Aug. 15 for advertisements promoting the services offered by MIHS and its various medical centers. The ads did not mention Prop. 480 or seek to sway voters one way or another — both of which would be illegal. MIHS officials have maintained the effort was unrelated to Prop. 480, and had been in the works for months before the bond campaign began.

"I guess you can say, 'Well, it (marketing campaign) certainly didn't hurt.' But I really, really want to emphasize that that awareness, the community education, is an ongoing part of our strategy and our mission," Purves said. "For us not to do that, in my mind, would raise questions with the public about what is our relevancy. It's a real, legitimate part of our board exercising our public fiduciary (responsibility)."

McCarthy said he plans to work with lawmakers next year to address the use of taxpayer funds by public bodies on activities that benefit them and help related political campaigns. He said it sets a dangerous precedent for other bodies like local school boards that could be tempted to use publicly funded education efforts to boost their bond campaigns.