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Sauk County Board votes to negotiate sale of nursing home

WiscNews - 4/2/2024

Apr. 1—Days before an election that could have changed the outcome, the Sauk County Board last week voted to negotiate with a private buyer for the county-owned nursing home.

In a closed session of a special meeting on Thursday, the board voted 19-9 to negotiate with an unnamed buyer for the Sauk County Health Care Center in Reedsburg. County officials would not disclose the identity of the potential buyer, citing the potential for the board to revisit the matter if negotiations fall through.

Sups. Jacob Roxen, Delmar Scanlon, Marty Krueger, Mike Flint, Joan Fordham, Bryant Hazard, Dennis Polivka, Gaile Burchill and Valerie McAuliffe voted against the measure. Sups. Pat Rego, Rebecca Klitzke and William Stehling were absent for the vote.

The potential sale of the nursing home is a key issue for challengers to current board members in Tuesday's election. Candidates Nathan Johnson, Thomas Kriegl, Jean Berlin, Mark Waldon, Sam Pocernich and Scott Alexander oppose privatizing the nursing home.

Kriegl, Waldon, Pocernich and Berlin are running against incumbents Terry Spencer, Mike Anderson, James Astle and Sheila Carver in Districts 2, 9, 18, and 22. All of the challenged incumbents voted in favor of entering negotiations for the sale of the nursing home. Johnson and Alexander are vying for seats being vacated by Sups. Mike Flint and Carl Gruber, who voted against and for the measure, respectively.

County Board Chair Tim McCumber expressed confidence that a sale could still move forward regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's election, saying that the county would have an offer that meets the stipulations of a resolution passed in December that opened the facility to private offers.

The board chose one of three bidders for the nursing home, which was marketed under nine stipulations after county data showed that it has cost taxpayers more than $17 million since 2018.

"The bottom line is we're nonprofit and, if we didn't have taxpayer money, we'd have to break even, and we don't do that," McCumber said. "We lose $1.7 million (per year). It's that simple."

Sup. Robert Spencer said the prospective sale is to "save" the Sauk County Health Care Center, and other counties in the state are privatizing the facilities to "keep them viable" and maintain fiscal responsibility.

County administrator Brent Miller said an official sale is "a long way off." Along with the 82-bed facility, a 31.7-acre plot of vacant land adjacent to it is also for sale. McCumber said the entire property could be owned by two or three entities, with possibly a provider each for nursing and long-term care. The current offer is strictly for the facility.

"Essentially, we are going to negotiate with one of the three potential buyers," McCumber said after the meeting. "Ultimately, the board did the right thing. Moving forward in good faith, we are going to try and retain the balance of the land because the offer wasn't worthy of selling the extra 30-some acres."

McCumber said the county's strategy is to expand health care services at the facility and surrounding land, and continued county ownership and resulting deficits will not allow that to happen.

"If we can get somebody in there that can break even, make a profit, and fill the beds, that's a better service for the county, and we can find another partner to help us expand the long-term care needs and assisted care needs in the county by building additional facilities on the rest of that property," McCumber said.

Twelve people, including Kriegl and Berlin, spoke in opposition of the sale of the health care center. Kriegl criticized how the county spends much more on the Sauk County Jail than the nursing home.

Joy Kirkpatrick, one of the opponents to the sale, questioned the timing of the vote, saying, "Why the rush to have this discussion right now?"

McCumber said the decision to have the meeting on Thursday came after he contacted the rest of the board via email on March 20 to get approval to hold the meeting after receiving notification of the three offers earlier in the day.

He said the timing of the meeting was to not delay action on offers and that having the conversation with a new County Board after Tuesday's election "did not make sense."

"I don't think it would have been fair to the buyers," McCumber said of waiting to meet until after the election. "Maybe they would have accepted it, but I don't think it would have been fair to the potential buyers to sit on these things for two weeks."

Kirkpatrick also criticized that the county's Property Committee was the lone committee responsible for proposing the resolution to the board and said committees dealing with health care should have had more involvement.

She and other speakers were also critical of what they described as the county rushing to potentially privatize the nursing home without further study of the facility's current status and long-term effects of privatization.

The Property Committee, which consists of Sups. Mark "Smooth" Detter, Carl Gruber, Joel Chrisler, Robert Spencer and James Astle, will be dissolved in a board-wide committee restructure after Tuesday's election. The new committee for property matters will be the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, McCumber said.

Gruber and Chrisler are not running for re-election on Tuesday. No members of the Public Works and Infrastructure or other future committees have been assigned.

Another speaker, Daniel Holzem, angrily expressed opposition to the potential sale, and McCumber threatened to have him removed from the podium, after which Holzem said his rights to free speech were being infringed.

If sold, the facility has a projected fund balance of just over $9.3 million, according to county budget data.

Based off an end-of-year fund balance for 2022 of nearly $10.7 million, Miller said that nearly $6.5 million of that represents the value of the facility's assets and an additional nearly $2.2 million is reserved for employee retirement benefits. Because of that, just over $2 million is unassigned, which he said stemmed from unfilled staff positions and projected food expenses which went unused that year.

Official fund balance data from 2023 is yet to be determined from audits, Miller said.

The resolution for the potential sale indicated that the county would be better served funding countywide programs for senior residents.

McCumber said the issues speakers raised were considered during Thursday's closed session but that some of the opinions stemmed from a "lack of understanding" of the nursing and senior care market.

"The way our system is set up today, with Medicare and Medicaid, the care is the same," McCumber said regarding differences between privatized and publicly provided care, adding that he has family experience dealing with senior care.

He said the criticisms of private care were "a slap in the face" to private health care providers in other areas, including SSM Health, which owns St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo.

Chris Stahmer, an emergency physician, disagreed with the notion of privatized care being equal to or better than public care. He said that privatized facilities have lower-quality care and the potential privatization in Sauk County could put added pressure on health facilities in the Madison area, which he said are already having issues with patient volume.

"Selling it is going to make a (nursing home) bed shortage over the next 10 years," Stahmer said. "It is going to worsen all of your emergency care."

Stahmer also said that a publicly run facility provides benefits for health care workers that outweigh those from a potential private buyer.

Currently, 30 counties in Wisconsin, including Sauk, have county-operated nursing homes, according to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data.

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


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