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Committee forwards nursing home recommendation

NEW RICHMOND -- The St. Croix County Health and Human Services Committee is taking the lead in recommending a plan for the future of the Health Center nursing home.

Committee members had hoped that the St. Croix County Board would provide some direction at its Committee of the Whole meeting April 14.

But nursing home officials left the meeting not knowing if a majority of the county supervisors wished to remain in business or not.

"It was somewhat disappointing," admitted Esther Wentz, chairwoman of the HHSC.

County Board Supervisor Fred Horne, New Richmond, said it appears the County Board is waiting for the committee to recommend a direction.

If the committee sits back and waits for the supervisors to act, Horne suggested, "...the discussion is not going to go like we'd like it to go."

"Let's grab the bull by the horns," he said. "Let's march."

Horne suggested that the committee recommend a business plan that would operate the current 72-bed facility as is for the next few years.

To make the facility self-sustaining, Horne said the county should direct the negotiating committee to work with employees to establish wage and benefit concessions that would reduce costs in the nursing home operation.

A number of county supervisors have suggested that St. Croix County get out of the nursing home business because the current facility requires some tax funding to continue operating.

During the next two years, Horne said, the county should then begin planning for and constructing a new 50-bed nursing home and 48-unit assisted living complex to replace the current facility.

An analysis completed by financial consultant LarsonAllen shows that such a downsized facility, along with wage and benefit concessions, would likely make the nursing home self sustaining.

"Then I think we do get to a business plan that is off the tax levy," Horne said. "I think we could get enough votes to move forward with that plan."

Supervisor Richard "Buzz" Marzolf, town of Troy, said he didn't feel a 50-bed nursing home was adequate to take care of expected demand for beds in the future.

But, he said, the recommended new facility was the "most affordable scenario" right now. He said more beds could be added later if demand rose.

Supervisor Linda Luckey, Houlton, wondered if the committee should simply recommend continued operation of the 72-bed facility for the foreseeable future. She said a proposal to build a new facility might "scare people."

"Maybe you need to prove that you can bring the levy down before you start building something," she said.

Supervisor Roger Larson, Star Prairie, said if the current facility remained as is, wage and benefit concessions would have to total more than 15% in order to take the nursing home off the levy.

"You're not going to get 15 percent," he said. "We know that."

The only way to make the nursing home a viable business, Larson suggested, is to build a more efficient complex soon. The business plan calls for a new facility to be open by 2013.

By moving ahead with building plans, Horne said, the county would show its commitment to employees that the nursing home will stay open. By showing that commitment, Horne added, employees are more likely to agree to wage and benefit concessions.

Horne noted that the county's financial advisor has stated that borrowing for building projects is "cheap" now due to low interest rates. If the county was thinking about building a new nursing home and assisted living complex, Horne said, now would be the time to do that.

The committee voted unanimously to forward a recommendation to the County Board that the county continue to operate the 72-bed facility for the near future. The recommendation also directs the Negotiations Committee to work with employees on possible wage and benefit concessions. That proposal will come before the board for a vote at its regular May meeting.

The committee will then consider an additional recommendation to build a new complex during its own May meeting.

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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