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Calexico’s Heffernan Health District Making Progress
The Heffernan Memorial Health District office at 601 Heber Ave. in Calexico. | Corissa Ibarra photo

Not Just a Band-Aid: Calexico’s Heffernan Health District Making Progress

CALEXICO — In a reinvention process more than two years in the making, Calexico’s Heffernan Memorial Healthcare District is inching closer to being free of the intense scrutiny of an oversight agency, it has been learned.

The Imperial County Local Formation Commission is expected to issue a positive final report and staff recommendations as soon as March. That could release the Calexico district from two-plus years of corrective measures and monitoring, a commission official said.

LAFCO oversees the practices and procedures of all special districts in the county. As recently as about two years ago its top official had said dissolving the district was possible due to chronic mismanagement and financial problems.

“I’m pleased with the efforts they’ve made, pleased that they’ve headed in a direction that our commission wanted them to go,” LAFCO Executive Director Jurg Heuberger said during a Feb. 18 interview.

“It’s a significant turnaround they’ve made. Credit goes to Tomas (Virgen, Heffernan chief executive) and board members. They took the commission’s directives serious. They should be complimented for efforts made,” Heuberger said.

Problems Outlined

Heffernan’s problems, as outlined by LAFCO, included how the district spent its considerable war chest of property tax funding and how its trustees did — or did not –understand and fulfill their mission to provide healthcare to Calexico residents. Financial missteps cited included providing uniforms for sports teams.

LAFCO has been working with Heffernan since around February 2018 to hire staff, educate their elected members on good governance, establish grantmaking policies and develop a five-year plan, among other things, Heuberger has said.

Chief among the moves was hiring Virgen.

Actions to overhaul how the Heffernan district does business began in late 2017 and early 2018 amid LAFCO review. The agency is tasked with checking in on special districts every five years.

The review just happened to coincide with criticisms over how the board was conducting its meetings. Also questioned was how Heffernan was awarding grants to community groups that had nothing to do with why the district is getting a percentage of Calexico-area property tax revenue. The funds are expected to provide medical services for those living within the district’s boundaries.

The district was initially established to help fund the operation of a hospital and, later, to fund medical services in general. While there has not been a hospital in the city since the early 2000s, even Heffernan-funded community-wide medical services have been spotty at times, LAFCO reported.

At one point, Heuberger said Feb. 18, an outside consultant recommended to LAFCO that the Heffernan district be dissolved entirely. However, some LAFCO commissioners thought that was too extreme and that the district could be set on a better path.

Audit Results Due

Now, as LAFCO awaits a final independent financial audit from the district, Heuberger said the final staff report and recommendations are being prepared. Those could be ready for the commission to approve at its next meetings in March or April.

Already, the district has turned over such requested documents as a five-year business plan and policies on how it will consider and fulfill grant requests, Heuberger said.

The district has worked diligently to make many changes to the way it does business, Heffernan board President Rodolfo Valdez said.

“I think we’ve been trying very hard to please (LAFCO) and making ourselves better and educating ourselves on procedures,” Valdez said Feb. 18.

Heuberger did not say exactly what his recommendations to the commission would be, but he explained the report would be positive. The report could include options for the commission to continue closer monitoring of the district or change to something less structured.

Hiring Virgen in September 2018 is seen as a turning point, Heuberger said. LAFCO had urged the district to bring on an executive director and Virgen, a former El Centro Regional Medical Center interim chief executive officer, fit the bill. He works part time.

Valdez said it’s has been a good couple of years as the board improves how it functions and operates.

“We’re hoping this year is as good as last year in doing things for our community and bringing healthy programs to the citizens of Calexico,” he said.

Virgen, who was not available for comment for this story, worked closely with Heuberger to develop policies and procedures for the district and the five-year plan, among other duties, Heuberger said.

Virgen has also provided board members with staff reports and information the board needs to make decisions and focus on projects that align with their intended goals and objectives, Heuberger said.

District Improvements

The Heffernan district receives about $975,000 a year in property tax revenue specifically to provide medical services for the community. With a savings account of around $5 million, the district has assets totaling around $6.5 million, according to an executive summary in the district’s five-year business plan.

The district in January celebrated the groundbreaking of a rehabilitation project of one of its properties on Mary Avenue. It will convert an old office building into new medical-related office space and healthcare-related educational classrooms. The project is costing the district around $1.5 million.

The district is also looking to soon grow its relationship with Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District, Valdez said. Under consideration is an expansion of the services PMHD and Heffernan provide and its use of space at the Heffernan-owned former Calexico Hospital building at 450 E. Birch St. Pioneers runs a health center at the former hospital now, but Valdez said the district wants to partner with Pioneers to add pediatric and other services. Additionally, the five-year plan includes designs for a $6 million, 10,000-square-foot rural health clinic and urgent care center to be opened sometime in 2023, Valdez added.

This story is featured in the Feb 20, 2020 e-Edition.

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