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County Board debates nursing home referendum

HUDSON -- The question before the St. Croix County Board Tuesday 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 Tuesday'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, 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. 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.

"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, the former HHS director. He said he supports continuing with the referendum "so the whole county gets to speak."

Supervisor Richard "Buzz" Marzolf, 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, 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 long-time county residents who may be forced out of their homes by the cost.