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County nursing home future uncertain after vote to cut tax subsidy $320,813

The St. Croix County Health Center's nursing home was making good progress on its five-year strategic plan.

In the first year since implementing that plan, the nursing home had weaned itself off its county levy support to the tune of 35 percent.

The previous year, county taxpayers helped subsidize the nursing home operation by about $1 million. This year that subsidy dropped to about $640,000.

The goal, over the next four years, was to eliminate the need for the nursing home to be supported by taxpayers.

"I thought we were on target," said Frank Robinson, the nursing home administrator hired specifically to right the facility's financial picture.

Then came the Oct. 26 St. Croix County Board meeting.

With little or no warning, several proposals were presented to immediately cut the county's financial support of the care facility.

Hudson area Supervisor Steve Hermsen's plan to reduce the nursing home's budget by $660,000 ended in a tie vote. The nursing home's total annual budget is about $8.2 million.

Had the motion been approved, said Supervisor Esther Wentz, New Richmond, the nursing home likely would have had to shut down.

Even though some county board members believe the county shouldn't compete with private nursing homes, Wentz said the New Richmond facility has been providing care much longer than all of the region's for-profit facilties.

"They went into the business for a profit," she noted. "The county nursing home is there to provide good care for our citizens."

Wentz, who initially ran for the county board in an effort to support the nursing home operation, said she hopes the facility will continue to operate for many years to come.

"I'm frustrated, because every department in the county pulls on the county levy," she said. "These are our county's most vulnerable people we're taking care of. Why can't that be supported by the levy?"

Wentz noted that the 2008 county advisory referendum indicated 3-to-1 support from voters wishing to aid the nursing home operation with tax dollars. She feels the board is acting against the wishes of the majority of county residents.

Hermsen sees things differently.

"I'd love to see us get out of the nursing home business," Hermsen said, noting that county government shouldn't compete with private businesses that are providing a similar service.

Short of closing the nursing home, Hermsen said, he and other board members believe the nursing home shouldn't be a drain on the county budget.

"We need to get it off the backs of the taxpayers," he said.

The nursing home's operational deficit is mostly the fault of the employee's union, which is resistant to reducing pay and benefit levels that are much higher than what other nursing homes pay, Hermsen said.

"We need to force the union to run this place like any other place," he said.

Lost in the debate over the nursing home's support, Hermsen said, is the fact that the facility's initial budget request was $1 million higher than its approved budget.

He said he didn't think the nursing home would accomplish its five-year goal of weaning itself off the levy without a big push.

"I took a hard line with it," he said. "They have to take their lumps like everyone else. I wasn't about to wait for five years."

A subsequent motion at the county board meeting by Sharon Norton-Bauman, Hudson, to cut $320,813 from the nursing home's taxpayer support was approved 13-5. That money was re-allocated to the sheriff's department, Health and Human Services Department and highway department.

"It was kind of a surprise," Robinson admitted in an interview last Friday. "It's put a lot of angst in the facility. People are asking if we're going to be here down the road. It's hard for me to answer that question."

Last year's message from the county board was that there needed to be a plan to take the facility off the levy, Robinson said. That's why a full-time administrator was hired and a five-year plan was approved.

Now he's not too sure what the message from the county is, Robinson said.

To adjust the nursing home's budget, the Health and Human Services Committee voted Wednesday to significantly increase rates for private pay residents of the facility.

Patients who have funds to pay for their own nursing home care had already been notified of a 4 percent hike in their rate on Nov. 1. Those rates were established at $185 a day for a double room and $200 a day for a private room.

The rates approved last week were $224 a day for a double room and $239 a day for a private room. The private pay rates, which will go into effect Jan. 1, 2011, will likely be the highest charged by any nursing home in the area.

"I'm hoping that people will understand and they will stay here and not go to a different facility," Robinson said. "I think they'll stay. People are comfortable with the care they're getting here."

Robinson said the county nursing home remains a five-star rated facility and the care provided is worth the extra expense.

Moving forward, Robinson said he will continue to operate the facility as if his five-year plan is in effect. The goal remains to take the nursing home off the levy by 2015.

"We're doing all we can to get off the levy," he said.

Part of that plan could be to build a new 50-bed nursing home and adjacent 30-bed assisted living complex.

A recent market analysis of the idea, and a strategic plan commissioned by the Health and Human Services Commission, indicates that the county could benefit financially from such a new facility.

But Hermsen said he doubts the county board will go along with the idea.

"My gut tells me that there is no taste for that from the majority of the board," he said.

Wentz disagrees.

"I think there is a possibility that it could happen," she said. "We need these services for senior citizens, especially assisted living options that low-income people can afford."

Robinson said he still feels there's a place for a county-owned nursing home in the mix of skilled nursing care, even though some may disagree.

"I think there is a place for this in county business," he said, "caring for people."

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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