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With referendum near, supporters still ask for nursing home vote now

The question before the St. Croix County Board last week wasn't whether the county should stay in the nursing home business but if the board should honor a decision to let the public vote first.

After lengthy discussion, supervisors voted to indefinitely postpone action on a resolution to build a new facility.

Meanwhile, members of a committee charged with developing wording for a referendum said they expect to have a proposal for the August board meeting.

On March 18 County Board members voted 22-4 to hold a Nov. 4 referendum on continuing nursing home operations, get more information on the cost of construction and remodeling and appoint a committee to draft the referendum.

Two months later, on May 28, the Health and Human Services Committee adopted, on a 7-1 vote, a motion to recommend that the county build a new nursing home and a 20-unit assisted living facility. That resolution was on the agenda for last week's County Board meeting.

"This is a new board, and new boards can't be dictated to by previous boards in most cases," said Corporation Counsel Greg Timmerman, who advised that supervisors aren't bound by a decision made before the April election.

Timmerman said adopting the resolution to build would void the earlier decision to hold a referendum.

Some supervisors disagreed, saying the referendum would proceed.

But, said Supervisor Daryl Standafer, North Hudson, voting to build and then holding a citizen vote would put the board "in an extremely embarrassing position of arrogance."

He said first announcing that the County Board wants the public's opinion and then voting to build would be as much as saying, "Whoops, I guess no matter the opinion you express in November, we've decided to proceed unilaterally."

Standafer suggested the board take no action until after the referendum.

"What's new about the circumstances?" wondered Supervisor Buck Malick, town of Hudson. He asked HHS Committee members what has changed since March to prompt them to promote a County Board vote now.

The county has wrestled with the issue for years and the committee just wants "to get closure," replied HHS Committee member Gerald Peterson, Baldwin.

"Let's not keep putting this off -- that's what I hear on the street," said Peterson.

Deciding what to do with the nursing home has been a 20-year process, said Supervisor John Borup, North Hudson, the former HHS director. He said he supports continuing with the referendum "so the whole county gets to speak."

Supervisor Richard "Buzz" Marzolf, town of Troy, who advocated for the building resolution at the HHS meeting, said he recently spent 12 days in the nursing home's rehabilitation unit recovering from surgery.

While there he witnessed "exemplary care" provided to patients, said Marzolf, who doubted they would get the same attention in a for-profit home.

"There was just an ongoing exhibition of genuine authentic love and care," he said.

In 2006 the county tax subsidy for the nursing home was $1.3 million, which Marzolf figured amounts to 6.47 cents per tax parcel per day.

"I don't think it's asking too much of our taxpayers to subsidize the nursing home to that degree," he said.

The current tax levy cost for each nursing home bed is $20,000 a year, said Supervisor Sharon Norton-Bauman, Hudson, who read a two-page statement outlining her opposition to the HHS resolution.

"I am concerned about the real estate taxes which all our citizens pay, including those elderly people who live on fixed incomes," said Norton-Bauman.

She said it's not fair to provide care for some elderly or disabled people at the expense of longtime county residents who may be forced out of their homes by the cost.

Also said Norton-Bauman, the HHS resolution gives no cost estimates for either a new nursing home or an assisted living facility. Voting to build would be "potentially signing a blank check," she said.

She reminded fellow supervisors that a year ago a consultant reported that the county could expect to spend $7.4 million in property tax dollars to operate the nursing home from 2007 to 2011 -- and that doesn't include any construction or remodeling costs.

"I believe that many people are already stretching their dollars to provide for transportation, food, housing and utilities," said Norton-Bauman. "To ask for more at this time seems unnecessary and unwise."