Monday, September 28, 2020

Rolling Hills committee alters tack on project funding

Will seek funding approval for design, construction bid documents

After coming up one vote short of securing $2 million from the general fund for a building project at last month’s Monroe County Board meeting, the Rolling Hills Committee agreed to offer a way forward it believes will be more palatable to supervisors sitting on the fence.

At a special meeting Tuesday, the committee voted to forward a resolution to the board calling for allocating $765,000 of general fund money to pay architects to draft plans and construction documents for a proposed senior care facility so it could be put out for bids. Like last month’s failed resolution, the measure will require a two-thirds majority vote.

The county board already has approved a $16 million bonding resolution for the project but a two-year delay due to a lawsuit resulted in increased construction costs. What those increases amount to is a matter of contention.

The Rolling Hills committee wants to keep the project going forward through the bidding process, which will produce solid numbers for the facility. Included in those numbers will be a couple of alternate construction plans in an attempt to placate objections from some supervisors over the configuration of services for the proposed facility.

The original proposal calls for a 50-bed skilled nursing home with attached 24-bed assisted living  and 24-bed independent living units. A three-year-old study performed by Wipfli, a CPA and consulting firm in Eau Claire, showed that configuration to be the most efficient and would allow the facility operate in the black.

At last month’s county board meeting, some supervisors objected to the independent living units, saying they competed with private business, while others wanted more skilled nursing home beds built into the facility.

Tom Martin of Community Living Solutions (CLS), the firm hired to design the facility, said besides the 50-24-24 configuration, he will include two alternative construction plans in the bid documents, one which would eliminate the independent living apartments and move them to a future phase of the project.  That, he said, would bring the project to under $16 million.

The other alternate plan is a 62-bed skilled nursing unit and a 24-bed assisted living.

Martin said he wasn’t sure how those reconfigured plans would affect the operational costs of running the facility, but it would impact construction costs.

“Right now I anticipate one or two of those options would fall under that $16 million threshold that you’ve already crossed,” he said.

The committee also discussed the effort to privatize the facility. Rolling Hills Nursing home Director Linda Smith, who has worked at the nursing home through three attempts to privatize the facility. She said each attempt was met with overwhelming calls from the community to keep it county owned. 

That public attitude was reinforced when nearly two-thirds of voters approved an advisory referendum saying they would accept increased taxes to pay for a new nursing home.

Supervisor Remi Gomez, who attended the meeting, was one of the six supervisors who voted against allocating  $2 million from the general fund for the project at last month’s county board meeting. He said he still wants to explore selling the facility to a private entity, placing conditions on the sale to keep the beds in Monroe County.

That plan was pushed by former county board supervisor Gene Treu at last month’s board meeting.

Committee member Wally Habhegger said Treu advocated for privatizing Rolling Hills when he was on the board. “It wasn’t just rejected,” said Habhegger, “it was soundly rejected. I see that as a waste of time.”

Committee Chairperson Toni Wissestad agreed, saying privatization has been brought forward and shot down by previous boards. “The constituents I represent would look at that as a step backward.”

Gomez said his constituents have different opinions and he sees no harm in revisiting the idea of privatization. He said the board shouldn’t hang its hat on a non-binding referendum that took place before the economy crashed.

Smith said there are county nursing homes in Wisconsin that have been sold and the outcomes have been exceedingly poor – Jackson County being one of them.

She said the level of care and employee benefits suffered at the hands of privatization and some of the facilities went into bankruptcy.

“Privatization for privatization’s sake might get the direct burden off the taxpayer but the burden that follows later when services are removed from the county creates its own burden,” she said, noting many residents have to be relocated in facilities in other counties. “It’s a challenging economy but is it really your health care you want to gamble with?”

Wissestad also pointed to an urgency brought on by the current nursing home’s rapid deterioration, with much-needed repairs put on hold in anticipation of moving into a new facility.

“We can’t just keep turning a blind eye to what’s going on out there,” she said.

According to Smith, the estimated costs to upgrade mechanical systems and remodel the structure to meet code has risen to $28 million. She said the county has been putting band aids on the problems but that option is running out of time.

“As long as this county owns the facility this committee in particular, and the county board as a whole, is responsible for the care and welfare of (the nursing home’s) residents,” she said.

Martin said if the board approves the funding, he would be looking at bidding the project in February or March, what he called a sweet spot for competitive pricing.  He anticipates he would have bid results at the March meeting.

If the county wishes to pursue privatization, it would require the approval of a resolution directing the Rolling Hills committee to develop a request for proposals (RFP). That resolution would either have to originate with the committee or through a Rule 5 petition, requiring only three supervisor’s signatures to bring it forward.

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