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Nursing home referendum leaves other questions for supervisors

St. Croix residents voted nearly 2-1 to continue using tax dollars to support the county-owned nursing home, but County Board members are divided on exactly what that vote means.

The tally last week was 27,425 to 14,765 in favor of operating the nursing home using property tax money. The 2009 budget calls for tax levy support of $1 million.

The question carried with at least 57 percent of the vote in every municipality, said Administrative Coordinator Chuck Whiting. Highest rates of yes votes were in the New Richmond area and the northern tier of towns. The lowest rates of yes votes were in the southwest corner of the county.

"Obviously this is something the public wants," said Kim Dupre, who actively campaigned in support of the nursing home. She said that even to her the vote was mind-boggling.

"At 95 that was the best present I could have ever brought to my mom," said Dean Winquist, who told of his mother's tears of joy at hearing the referendum had passed.

"I think it gave us real direction in what way to go with the nursing home, and it surely told us not to go from 72 beds to 50," said Supervisor Richard King, who chaired Tuesday's board meeting.

It's dangerous to read that into the vote, warned Supervisor Daryl Standafer, who chairs the Finance Committee. He said the referendum question asked nothing about any particular size.

Also, said Standafer, the vote is interesting in the context of an organized and specific campaign encouraging "yes" votes but no campaign for "no" votes.

"Had there been a straight-up educational debate ... I have to wonder what the vote would have been," said Standafer.

"What did a person voting 'yes' think they were voting for?" he wondered.

And, said Standafer, there's still the dilemma of the nursing home taking a fair amount of tax support.

If the county is going to spend money on the home, it will have to make cuts elsewhere, he said.

King wasn't persuaded.

"I see that we should take care of the people at our nursing home and not downsize in any way," he said.

The county could consider building a new nursing home along with assisted-living apartments, said Supervisor Gerald Peterson.

"Let's take it right to the voters," he said. "Then let the voters decide, and we might have something really different than what we have now."

"I think the voters already have decided," replied King.

It seemed the pre-vote publicity asking for "yes" votes urged support for needy county residents, said Supervisor Sharon Norton-Bauman.

She suggested the Health and Human Services Board take that into consideration and change admission policies to give preference to low-income patients.

She also suggested the board look at developing a nursing home unit to serve patients with dementia since that type of care isn't offered elsewhere in the county.

King predicted the board will have many more nursing home discussions.