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Committee seeking vote on nursing home's future

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Will St. Croix County continue to operate a nursing home or will it get out of the business?

A majority of the members of the county's Health and Human Services Committee hope the voters will be given a chance to decide the fate of the St. Croix Health Center nursing home during the April elections.

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The committee voted 7-1 at a special meeting Dec. 21 to recommend to the St. Croix County Board that a non-binding referendum question be placed on the spring ballot.

After discussing the matter for almost two hours, the committee agreed on language they would like to see on the ballot. The county board will consider the issue of placing the referendum question on the ballot at its Tuesday, Jan. 3, meeting.

The question reads as follows: "Should St. Croix County continue to operate the St. Croix County nursing home if property tax dollars are needed to partially fund its operations?"

Taxpayers have helped fill a funding gap at the nursing home for many years. Earlier this year, nursing home employees agreed to wage and benefit concessions to help reduce the facility's budget deficit, but still tax money was needed to balance the budget.

At the Dec. 21 meeting, Committee Chairwoman Esther Wentz made an impassioned plea when introducing the idea of a referendum.

Even though county voters approved a similar referendum by nearly a two-to-one margin in 2008, Wentz said county officials continue to argue about what their constituents really want.

"We want to re-affirm what we're doing is what taxpayers want," she said. "Then we can know, once and for all, if they are in favor of it. It might silence some of the critics on the (county) board."

There is a chance that voters will reject the referendum, Wentz admitted, but at least the question would be put to rest no matter what the outcome.

People she talks to support the continued operation of the county-owned nursing home, Wentz said, but she agreed most of those people live in the New Richmond area where the facility is located.

"Residents and employees walk on egg shells every day," Wentz said of the uncertainty surrounding the facility's future. "Are we going to be in the nursing home business or not. Our employees need to know they have a job. Our residents shouldn't have to worry about being moved to another nursing home."

Committee member Richard "Buzz" Marzolf said the taxpayer support for the nursing home will amount to just 1.2 percent of the total annual budget for St. Croix County in 2012. That compares to about 2.2 percent of the county's budget in 2011.

Committee member Linda Luckey said, however, that the county's actual support of the nursing home budget could be a bit higher than originally anticipated. She noted that, with declining payments from Medicare and Medicaid, the nursing home could be facing larger deficits in 2012 and 2013.

She said the apparent 50 percent drop in county levy support to the nursing home over the past year would lead voters to think that the downward trend will continue.

"It implies that we're on a course that is headed to much better," she said. "That's not the case. We're not out of the woods."

Marzolf disagreed, noting that employee concessions have improved the nursing home's financial picture considerably.

Luckey noted that a new nursing home in Osceola, and a soon-to-be-completed nursing home in New Richmond, could present some stiff competition for the county nursing home.

County Board member Sharon Norton-Bauman, who attended the special meeting, suggested the committee wait until November to place a referendum on the ballot but also to make it a binding referendum.

She said any question should provide voters with specific numbers for a specified time period of levy support.

The committee voted 7-1 in favor of recommending the referendum as proposed. Only Luckey voted no.

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