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Nursing home's future still remains in question

Will St. Croix County stay in the nursing home business or get out?

Employees and administrators with the St. Croix County Health Center nursing home were hoping that question would be answered last week.

But after discussion among county supervisors at their Committee of the Whole meeting Thursday, a final decision appeared no closer to reality.

The county's Health and Human Services Committee forwarded several business plan options to county supervisors in the hope that they would receive some direction from the county. Debate about the future of the nursing home has been ongoing for many months.

Fred Johnson, Health and Human Services director, said the issue has been studied enough and the time for a decision has come.

The county needs to first decide if it's going to continue operating the publicly-supported nursing home. If they do decide to stay in the business, Johnson said, a decision needs to be made if the current building will be used or if a new nursing home and assisted living complex will be constructed.

"What can you support?" Johnson asked.

County Board Supervisor Fred Horne, who is also mayor of New Richmond, said it's important for the facility to continue serving elderly residents.

Horne said he recognized, however, that the county board remains equally divided on the question of whether to stay in the nursing home business or not.

He suggested the county sit down with employees and work together to make the nursing home financially self-sustaining.

"Is there some commitment to go down this path together with them (the employees)?" Horne asked.

Employees have indicated that they may be willing to negotiate wage and benefit concessions in exchange for a commitment from the county to keep the facility operating.

Nursing home Administrator Frank Robinson said the only cost-cutting option left on the table is wage and benefit cuts.

With such concessions, Robinson said, it is possible to reduce the amount of taxpayer funds needed to support the operation. The nursing home could also be taken completely off levy support.

Supervisor Richard "Buzz" Marzolf, Hudson, said even if levy support is needed, the facility should stay in county hands.

He noted that St. Croix County is one of the fastest growing counties in Wisconsin and the local population is aging. As that population ages, there will be more demand for skilled nursing care, he said.

"It seems to me that the need is going to be there," Marzolf said.

Supervisor Alfred Schrank, Glenwood City, said he, too, would support continued operation of the county facility.

"We're second guessing what our forefathers did," he said.

He said the public voted in 2008 to support the nursing home facility with tax dollars, and the board should honor the voters' will. He also noted that the nursing home continues to be a five-star rated facility and employee retention is high.

"We must be doing something right up there," he said.

Several supervisors remained unconvinced.

Supervisor Steve Hermsen, Hudson, said the issue could have been handled a few years ago when Christian Community Homes offered to buy the county facility and operate it.

"We had an ability to turn that over," he said.

But the City of New Richmond opposed the move and the nursing home company pulled out, Hermsen said.

Hermsen asked if New Richmond would be willing to take ownership of the nursing home, noting that most residents in the facility are from the New Richmond area anyway.

Horne said he doubted that the city would take ownership of the facility, but suggested that a community non-profit could be organized to operate the nursing home if needed.

"I think some organization would step forward to keep it operating and a viable business in the community," he said.

Supervisor Sharon Norton-Bauman, Hudson, said there are more than 70 empty nursing home beds in the county currently.

If the county closed its nursing home, the need would be met by private facilities, she suggested.

Robinson agreed that county-wide demand for beds is low right now, but studies indicate that demand will outpace supply in the future.

At the end of the meeting, no straw poll was taken to determine how each supervisor felt about the nursing home and its continued operation.

Robinson said he's frustrated by the never-ending debate because it scares potential new residents away.

"It's affecting my census," he said. "People wonder, 'am I going to have to move mom or dad down the road?'"

Robinson asked the county board to provide direction soon, so that a plan to make the nursing home a viable business can be implemented.

Once the "target" is off the nursing home's back, leading to doubt about the facility's future, progress toward that goal can be made, he said.