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Group continues opposition to sale of Sauk County nursing home

WiscNews - 6/9/2024

Jun. 8—A group of Sauk County residents is maintaining its staunch opposition to the potential privatization of the county-owned nursing home.

The group, led by Reedsburg resident Judy Brey, met for a two-hour public meeting Wednesday at Baraboo'sCarnegie-Schadde Memorial Public Library to discuss the negatives of the potential sale of the Sauk County Health Care Center in Reedsburg.

Sauk County and an unnamed private buyer entered negotiations following a 19-9 vote after a closed session during a special County Board meeting March 28, five days before the April 2 board elections.

There is no timeline for when a final vote on a sale might occur. Negotiations remain ongoing, according to county corporation counsel Brian Desmond. The board voted to issue a request for proposals for the nursing home during in a 22-7 vote in December.

Residents against the sale cited the quality of care under county ownership as opposed to what they believe could happen under a private buyer and the tax impact of county ownership among reasons not to sell the home. They also called for the county to provide more funding for the nursing home instead of the Sauk County Jail.

"Once it's corporate, you are going to lose quality of care," Joan Sawyer, of Lake Delton, said at Wednesday's meeting. "That has been my experience in anything that has gone that way because they answer to stockholders."

Ken Kidd, a retired physician who lives in La Valle, said he worked for a for-profit senior care facility for nearly four decades and that predictions of lower-quality care under private ownership are "absolutely correct."

District 18 Sup. Sam Pocernich was the lone County Board member to attend the meeting and he addressed the group.

"The government has a responsibility to look out for certain people," Pocernich said. "That includes children, the elderly and disabled. That right there is reason alone to keep the nursing home."

Pocernich added that he believes that government is more accountable with operating nursing homes than the private sector.

He said the county's reason for selling the home is to avoid making cuts to other services. He said state property tax levy limits do not allow for tax increases to keep up with inflation.

"This is a reflection of tax policy, in my mind," Pocernich said. "What the county is trying to do is a culmination of conservative ideology. Cut government, cut taxes, and somehow that is supposed to make everything better, and it doesn't."

Brey expressed disappointment with the lack of other supervisors at the meeting. She said reasons for a potential sale have not been communicated adequately to residents, and the meeting provided a chance for supporters of the sale to explain the reasoning.

Three former supervisors and sale opponents — Jean Berlin, Tom Kriegl and John Miller — attended the meeting.

Kriegl, who lost a bid to rejoin the board to Sup. Terry Spencer on April 2, has compared spending at the jail versus at the nursing home. He said property tax spending has averaged roughly $1 million per year over the past two decades on the nursing home, as opposed to roughly $7.25 million on the jail.

Kriegl and others also pointed out that the 20-year financing on the home will be paid off in three years, which would lower the annual cost of county ownership. County Board Chair Tim McCumber said the balance is paid through sales tax revenue and is not part of the property tax levy.

Alisia Marshall, a former nurse at the home, also addressed the gathering. Her mother, Anna Marshall, currently works in food service at the nursing home.

"It's very important to me that we honor our elders, and it's upsetting, the state of the Health Care Center," Alisia Marshall said. "It really feels like the county is not valuing our elder society, which is increasing at a rapid rate."

County budget projections indicate that just over $1.9 million in taxpayer funds are slated for nursing home spending this year. Just over $788,000 of that is from the county's projected property tax levy of slightly more than $35.1 million.

Total taxpayer funding of the home has decreased from nearly $3.4 million in 2015, with most of that decrease being from the tax levy. Sales tax funding has ranged from just over $1 million to nearly $1.3 million throughout the 10-year stretch from 2015 to 2024.

The board's reasons for privatizing the home include a 64% occupancy rate, with 52 of the 82 beds occupied, the taxpayer subsidies, and the average daily residence rate of $341 being the highest of eight senior care facilities in the county. The other seven are privately owned.

In April, three candidates against the possible sale were elected to replace three in favor of it. Pocernich defeated James Astle in District 18, Mark Waldon defeated Mike Anderson in District 9, and Scott Alexander was elected to replace Carl Gruber, who did not run for another term, in District 27.

The April 2 results would have created a 16-12 vote in favor of selling the home had the vote occurred after the election. Sups. Rebecca Klitzke, Pat Rego and William Stehling were absent from the March 28 meeting.

Stehling, who said he was in favor of the sale, lost his bid for re-election in District 30 to Chandler Horak, but Horak could not accept the office after moving out of the district.

A board vote to appoint Stehling to his former seat was scheduled for the May 21 board meeting, but the meeting was cancelled due to weather, and Stehling's potential appointment will be voted on during the June 18 meeting. McCumber expects Stehling to be appointed to his former seat.

Rego has voted against putting the Health Care Center up for bids and the negotiations measure. She was unavailable for comment but has previously stated her opposition to a sale.

Klitzke remains undecided on how she would vote on a final sale. She was one of the three supervisors absent from the March 28 board meeting.

Spencer, who represents District 2 and voted "yes" to enter negotiations, is still "in deep thought" about how he would vote on a sale of the home.

If Stehling is appointed and votes "yes" on a final sale, the sale would likely pass in a 16-15 vote if Spencer, Rego and Klitzke all vote "no."

Attempts to reach four other supervisors who voted in favor of entering negotiations were unsuccessful. District 26 Sup. Brandon Lohr, who also voted "yes," declined to comment.

In April, two residents who live at the nursing home, Mary Camp and her son, Alan Camp, praised the care they received from staff under county ownership and expressed concern that privatization would negatively affect that.

Reporter John Gittings can be reached via phone at (920) 210-4695.

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