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St. Crox voters to weigh in on nursing home

It's déjà vu for St. Croix County voters and their apparent desire to operate a county-owned nursing home.

An advisory referendum will be included on the upcoming April 3 election ballot asking county residents if they want a portion of their tax dollars to continue to support the St. Croix County Health Center's nursing home in New Richmond.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a similar referendum in 2008, 27,219 "yes" to 14,648 "no."

Not much has changed since that vote, according to Esther Wentz, chairman of the county's Health and Human Services Committee and a St. Croix County Board member.

The nursing home continues to provide quality care to residents, the county-owned facility provides good jobs for employees and the local economy gets a boost from the home's operation, Wentz said.

What has changed since 2008 is the nation's economy, according to some members of the St. Croix County Board, and taking the current pulse of voters is a good idea.

Over the past few years, the nursing home issue has been the center of controversy among county elected officials. Some claim the county should get out of the nursing home business, and let private facilities take care of elderly residents or others needing care.

Some of those favoring the nursing home's closure say taxpayer money should not subsidize an operation that competes with private businesses.

Wentz and others disagree.

She said the county home has been operating since the late 1800s and has always provided care to the most vulnerable local people.

"Others have come into the business since then to make money," she said. "We continue to operate in order to take care of people."

Wentz has served on the Health and Human Services Committee for 12 years and has witnessed first-hand how effectively and efficiently the nursing home operates. She claims county residents are well served by the facility and recommends that tax money continue to be allocated for its operation.

"I think they do an excellent job," she said. "We need to stay in the business. I think it's a real necessary service for the county to provide."

Wentz said almost every St. Croix County department relies on the tax levy to support its operation, and the nursing home should be no different.

"I would like us to get totally off the levy, but I don't know if that will be possible," Wentz said, noting that the nursing home loses money due to low Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement levels and state bed taxes. "We'll probably always have to be asking for some county tax money."

Over the past year, Wentz said, nursing home employees have agreed to wage concessions and operational changes that have resulted in significant savings for the facility, yet levy support was still needed to stay in the black. The level of county support has dropped quite a bit over the past couple years, she emphasized, and is no longer more than $1 million a year.

Wentz said she hopes voters will continue to show their support for the nursing home and approve the advisory referendum by a wide margin.

County Board member Sharon Norton-Bauman, Hudson, is not convinced that the referendum's approval is a good idea.

She said she isn't opposed to continuation of the county-owned facility, but would like to place a dollar limit on the level of tax support the nursing home should get.

The referendum question on the April 3 ballot, while it includes an explanatory section, does not indicate a possible cap on county dollars that could be used by the nursing home, Norton-Bauman said.

"It's just a blank check," she said. "It's too open ended."

It would be better if county officials pursued a binding referendum, Norton-Bauman said, placing a set dollar figure over a specific number of years on the ballot. That way, she added, elected officials would know the more specific intent of their constituents.

She claimed the explanatory information attached to the question talks about levy support for the nursing home based on the budgeted amount for 2012. The figure was much higher than that in 2011, Norton-Bauman noted, due to a higher-than-anticipated deficit and facility maintenance items that were triggered by a poor federal inspection report.

"I just think this question has the potential to mislead the public," she said. "A binding referendum would be a much more honest approach."

County Board member Steven Hermsen (Hudson) has been a vocal opponent of continuing the nursing home as a county-owned facility. Hermsen said the nursing home business is best left to the private sector, where expenses can better match revenues.

For 2011, Hermsen said, the nursing home operation was a big drain on increasingly limited county tax dollars, at a level much more than the $330,000 outlined in the explanation accompanying the referendum question.

He warned that voters should not be lulled into thinking that levy support will be capped at $330,000 annually, noting that tax dollars used for the nursing home's operation would likely be much more than that.

A more prudent use of tax dollars, Hermsen said, would be to close the county nursing home and place those needing care in other facilities.

"If the decision were solely mine, I'd bulldoze the remaining buildings on the New Richmond complex, move St. Croix Industries into New Richmond so that those individuals feel more included with the community, and move the Health and Human Services group back to the Government Center in Hudson where it can run more efficiently and serve a greater majority of St. Croix County citizens," he said.

Referendum wording

"Should St. Croix County continue to operate the St. Croix County nursing home in New Richmond if property tax dollars are needed to partially fund its operations?"


The St. Croix County Board of Supervisors desires public input on the question of whether or not the county should continue to operate the St. Croix County nursing home in New Richmond if property tax dollars are needed to partially fund its operation. The result of the vote is advisory, not binding.

A "yes" vote means you want the county to continue to operate the St. Croix County nursing home in New Richmond if property tax dollars are needed to partially fund its operation. For 2012, the St. Croix County nursing home in New Richmond budgeted $333,002 of county levy support for direct operations, which is approximately 1.2 percent of the total county tax levy of $27,847,925. These are projected numbers. Additional nursing home funding is provided by other sources.

There are no Wisconsin statutes that mandate a county must own or operate a nursing home. If a county does own or operate a nursing home, it must comply with Wisconsin Administrative Code DHS 132. The county nursing home in New Richmond is operated by choice; there are no "state mandates" to provide nursing home services.

A "no" vote means you do not want the county to continue to operate the St. Croix County nursing home in New Richmond if property tax dollars are needed to partially fund its 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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