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State's financial mess hampers nursing home planning

The St. Croix County Health and Human Services Committee met for three hours Friday, Feb. 24 to discuss possible business plans for the continued operation of the county-owned nursing home.

While the goal of the meeting was to endorse a preferred business strategy for the New Richmond facility, the group came to no conclusion.

As it became clear that no one had a specific proposal to eventually recommend to the St. Croix County Board, committee member Leon Berenschot shook his head and whispered, "We might as well get out of here."

Roger Larson, who was serving as chairman in Esther Wentz's absence, appeared frustrated.

"We're not coming out of here with what I expected," he said. "I'm lost as to what to do right now."

One thing committee members could agree on, though, was that it's difficult to plan for the nursing home's future when the state's financial picture is so unclear.

County Board Chairman Daryl Standafer, who is not a member of the committee but who attended the meeting, said the financial situation was expected to become more clear after Gov. Scott Walker released his budget proposal March 1.

Standafer said local officials did expect that state funding for counties and municipalities will be slashed and budget cuts would likely be required for every department.

"Folks, there isn't any money," Standafer said. "It's not going to be a matter of doing more with less any more. We're going to be doing less with less."

Because a large chunk of the county's budget funds Health and Human Services Department programs, Standafer said cuts will have to be made in order to balance the books.

Standafer said committee members may not be able to single out the nursing home and fund it fully, because if they do that greater financial sacrifices will be required elsewhere.

"We can't talk about any of these things in a vacuum," he said. "We're going to be forced to address what are the trade-offs. We've got some challenges ahead of us."

As an example, Standafer said, will the county decide that health and human services programs are more important than public safety or transportation needs? If so, funding may need to be beefed up for those services that are considered essential or are actually mandated.

County Board Supervisor Sharon Norton-Bauman, who attended the meeting but is not a committee member, urged the committee members to work toward a business plan recommendation before upcoming work sessions designed to prioritize county spending.

"If you don't come up with something by April, I'm afraid of what might happen," Norton-Bauman said.

Standafer agreed, noting that if the committee doesn't come up with a recommendation, county board members might take action on the issue themselves.

"Someone will make a decision for you," he said.

Health and Human Services Director Fred Johnson said developing a recommended plan will also go a long way toward alleviating the angst felt within the nursing home.

"To have this hanging over us ... it's disruptive for residents and for staff," he said of the uncertainty surrounding the facility's future.

Nursing Home Administrator Frank Robinson said an approved financial plan of attack would help calm everyone's nerves.

"We don't want to gulp every time an agenda comes out," he said of the frequency of the nursing home debate being discussed at meetings. "It feels like the nursing home has been such a target."

As the meeting opened, committee members all agreed that they supported the continued operation of the nursing home.

The question remained, however, if there was enough support to possibly construct an assisted living facility nearby to help reduce the subsidy the county currently pays to keep the nursing home operating.

Johnson noted that the nursing home has made great progress over the past few years to reduce its dependence on county levy funding. In 2005, $1.3 million in county tax money helped subsidize the operation. In 2010, the county's support totaled about $600,000. In 2011, the subsidy is expected to be about $300,000.

With the state's proposed budget repair bill, which would require public employees to increase their contributions to pension and health insurance costs, Johnson said the nursing home could cut its costs by almost $200,000.

If the nursing home worked with its union employees to come to an agreement on wage concessions, Johnson said, more money could be saved. The facility's wage scale is considerably higher than the median wages paid at similarly sized facilities, according to a recent report.

Still, Larson said he doubted that the nursing home could be completely weaned from the levy support.

"I would support using some levy dollars to keep it open," Larson said. "It's an important facility for us."

Berenschot criticized media coverage of the nursing home controversy, saying the negative tone has likely made people shy away from placing loved ones there. That has hurt the facility's bottom line.

"There's so much hullabaloo about whether or not the nursing home is going to be a business," he said. The message should be sent that the nursing home will be around for some time to come, he added.

Committee member Buzz Marzolf agreed.

"All that's been out there has been negative," he said. "I would think twice about sending someone to a facility like this."

Marzolf said it's important for the County Board and the Health and Human Services Committee to circulate positive information about the facility and the fact that it provides quality care for residents. In fact the Health Center Nursing Home is one of the few five-star rated facilities in the region, he noted.

Marzolf suggested that county officials continue to look at options for added services that could help generate additional revenue for the nursing home. One program, called Healing Hands, could help to boost patient numbers, he noted.

Berenschot urged the county to reflect back to 2008, when St. Croix County voters overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum which stated that they supported continued tax subsidies for the nursing home.

"I would like to stay with the citizens in support of the nursing home," he said.

Standafer said he recognizes the vote from 2008, but things have changed in the past three years and priorities need to be re-examined.

"The circumstances are dramatically different," he said.

Norton-Bauman suggested that voters be allowed to vote on a binding referendum to determine if they are willing to pay an additional tax to support the continued operation of the nursing home.

Committee members balked at the idea, noting that the voters have already spoken.

The committee will further discuss the issue at its regular March meeting.

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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