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Nursing home employees ready to talk options, including wage concessions

The employees at the St. Croix County Health Center nursing home appear ready to talk about wage concessions, if elected officials can provide some assurances that the facility will remain open for the forseeable future.

That's the message the St. Croix County Health and Human Services Committee heard Friday, as the committee members discussed a possible business plan for the New Richmond nursing home.

Fred Johnson, director of the county's Health and Human Services Department, outlined several scenarios for the future of the facility. The financial research was conducted by consultant LarsenAllen.

Among the ideas included in the plan:

  • Operate the nursing home as a 72-bed facility like it currently is.
  • Reduce the number of nursing home beds to 50.
  • Reduce the number of beds in the present facility to 50 and construct an attached 48-unit assisted living complex.
  • Build a new complex that would include a 40-bed nursing home and a 48-unit assisted living complex.
  • Build a new complex with 50 nursing home beds and 48 assisted living units.

    According to the estimated income statements over the next eight years, Johnson said all of the options would require a subsidy from the county's taxes if the overall budget was unchanged.

    Trouble is, a number of county board members have indicated that they want the facility to become self-supporting in the future or, some contend, St. Croix County should get out of the nursing home business.

    The only way to accomplish the goal of getting the nursing home off the levy, Johnson noted, is for the county's employee negotiating committee to talk with paid staff about possible wage concessions.

    "It doesn't work with our current wage and fringe package," said Frank Robinson, nursing home administrator. "I think we've done all we can operationally."

    To take the nursing home completely off the county levy, Johnson said employee wage and benefit concessions would have to total about $815,000.

    A cut of that size would bring the nursing home more in line with other facilities in the region in terms of average salary and benefits, he noted.

    Robinson said previous discussions indicated that if the nursing home were to slash employee expenses by $1.2 million, the local facility would be at the median in terms of wages and benefits.

    That would be short sighted, he said, because the county-owned nursing home has built a reputation for providing high-quality care for its residents. The St. Croix County Health Center nursing home has been rated a five-star skilled nursing center for several years running.

    It would be a good idea to offer higher wages and benefits than the average home, Robinson said, to continue to attract good employees.

    "I still think we need to be the employer of choice," he said.

    Richard Hesselink, county resident and chairman of the Town of Stanton Board, reminded the committee that county taxpayers had previously approved a non-binding referendum to support the nursing home operation with taxes.

    "The people have spoken," he said. "They're the ones who pay the bills. I would hope the county board would listen to their constituents."

    County resident Shirley Matzek agreed. She said the nursing home accounts for only a small portion of the county's overall budget and the important service the facility provides is worth the levy support it receives.

    Committee members are considering business plan options that would require some levy support, but some thought an effort to get off the levy would be better received.

    Committee Chairwoman Esther Wentz said supporters of the nursing home are trying to find a solution that will improve the facility's outlook for the short and long term.

    "We're trying to be good stewards of the county money," she said. "We want to make it (the nursing home) viable."

    Fred Horne, county Board member and health and human services committee member, said it makes sense that officials work cooperatively with employees to find an equitable solution to the financial challenges.

    "We need to talk and work together," he said. "They (the employees) are not the enemy."

    Tammy Funk, director of the county Human Resources Department, said the nursing home employees have always been willing to negotiate in an effort to ensure the future of the facility.

    "The question is what is the commitment of the (county) board?" she asked. "Is the county staying in the nursing home business?"

    Johnson said it's important for that question to be answered, so that employees and nursing home residents know what's going to happen.

    The committee voted unanimously to forward the business plan options to the county board's Committee of the Whole meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday, April 14.

    After getting feedback from the county board, the committee will revisit the business plan options on April 20 and develop a specific recommendation for the future operation of the nursing home.

    If the nursing home's financial picture is improved through cost cutting, Robinson said, the facility could then begin to talk about the possibility of building a new complex that could include assisted living units. That idea seemed to offer the most hope for a self-sustaining operation, according to the financial analysis.

    "I think we could be in the business long term and make it successful," Robinson said.

    "Looking at all the models we've seen, I think assisted living is imperative to be successful," Horne agreed. "Then it becomes a more viable operation."

  • 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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