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County nursing home at a crossroads?

The news surrounding the future of the St. Croix County Health Center nursing home is far from rosy.

At the Dec. 15 meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee, members reviewed the recently completed strategic planning report and another 2008 study related to the nursing home's financial future.

The LarsonAllen report indicates that if the county wanted to build a new 40-bed nursing home and 48-unit assisted living complex, the financial picture would improve slightly over the next decade. But even under that best-case scenario, the nursing home would likely still require a subsidy from taxpayers to continue operating.

If the county simply continued to operate the nursing home in its current 72-bed facility, the report suggests, the financial numbers look even more bleak.

Trenton Fast, auditor and consultant with LarsonAllen LLP, told the committee that his firm carefully scrutinizes a facility's financial picture before agreeing to seek financing for a building project.

Given the continuing operational loss at the facility, and the opposition of some county board members to continue subsidizing the nursing home, Fast said LarsonAllen wouldn't encourage a building plan at this time.

"Based on what we're looking at, we would be very hesitant to do an examined forecast and go out to get financing on it," he said.

Health and Human Services Department Director Fred Johnson said the situation could change if the county was able to secure grants and donations to help offset the cost of constructing the new complex, or if the county board agrees to continue its subsidization of the operation and help pay for a new $12 million facility.

Without a shift in the county board's stance, or a capital funding drive, Johnson said, it doesn't appear the nursing home will meet its goal of weaning itself off the levy by 2015.

"We may need to adjust that long-term goal," Johnson commented.

Johnson said he believes the committee has studied a sufficient number of potential options to improve the nursing home's financial position.

"Now it comes down to what will people support?" he said. "This committee needs to figure out what is the next step."

Johnson said nursing home residents and their families are asking what the future holds for the facility and they deserve an answer as soon as possible.

The committee directed Nursing Home Administrator Frank Robinson to gather a little more information before a decision or proposal is agreed upon.

County Board Supervisor Fred Horne asked that Robinson have a conversation with other county-owned nursing homes in Wisconsin that are more self-sufficient. He noted that a nursing home in Dunn County is considering constructing a new building, and officials there project that they will not need tax dollars to support the operation.

"There may be some paths that we haven't explored yet," Horne said.

Tonya Kusmirek, the HHS department's financial manager, said she understood that Dunn County worked with the nursing home staff there to review and adjust wages and benefits to make the operation more profitable.

In a study conducted by WIPFLi in 2008, wage and benefit comparisons between the St. Croix County nursing home and nearby private facilities showed quite a difference when it came to health insurance and pension costs.

Chairman Esther Wentz suggested the committee meet in joint session with the Administration and Building Facilities committees in January to talk about the nursing home situation.

Then, she said, the Health and Human Services Committee can discuss the topic further at its regular meeting and develop a possible recommendation to take to the entire county board.

"Think carefully about what you envision the future of the nursing home to look like," she told the committee. "And how do we get there?"

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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