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Lincoln County board votes against referendum to boost funding for Pine Crest Nursing Home

Many community members advocate for maintaining county ownership of facility

Pine Crest Nursing Home in Merrill, Wis. on Monday, June 26, 2023.
Pine Crest Nursing Home in Merrill, Wis. on Monday, June 26, 2023. Joe Schulz/WPR

The future of a county-owned nursing home in central Wisconsin remains unclear, after the Lincoln County Board voted against a referendum to boost funding for the facility.

A resolution authorizing a referendum that would have asked voters to approve exceeding the county’s tax levy limit by $3 million annually for the next decade in order to fund Pine Crest Nursing Home failed to pass on a 9-13 vote Tuesday night.

The referendum equated to an estimated $85.14 tax impact per $100,000 of property value for county residents over the next decade. Lincoln County has owned Pine Crest since the 1950s, but it has struggled to operate in the black in recent years.

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A March report from the county estimated the facility had a $1.2 million deficit last year, and requires an additional $11 million in maintenance. Since 2014, the facility has lost roughly $9 million, according to a May 12 document.

Pine Crest officials say the facility would have had a balanced budget last year — if not for a more than $1 million decrease in revenues from the state compared to previous years. The county sent a letter to Gov. Tony Evers in March asking the state to make the county whole for its losses from reduced state funding in 2022 and 2023.

The vote on the referendum resolution came after the County Board approved contracting a broker to determine if there’s a market for selling Pine Crest. The decision has been met by opposition from community members. Most Pine Crest residents are on Medicaid, which reimburses institutions less than the actual cost of care, according to North Central Health Care, the organization hired by the county to manage Pine Crest.

At a gathering in late June protesting the potential sale of Pine Crest, St. Stephen’s United Church of Christ Rev. Michael Southcombe said he fears a private entity purchasing the nursing home would reduce the number of Medicaid beds available.

“To believe that someone will buy Pine Crest, either a nonprofit or a for-profit entity, and keep the same level of service — with 70 to 80 percent of the residents on Medicaid — is magical thinking,” he said. “We need a county board that will stand up and abide by the moral contract we have with the most vulnerable elderly residents of Merrill.”

Many concerned community members attended Tuesday’s meeting, which saw over half an hour of public comment. In her address to the board, Dr. Laurie Wolf, an area physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, advocated for maintaining the county’s ownership of Pine Crest.

“I encourage the board to make it their objective to do everything in their power to maintain it,” Wolf said. “We have a treasure here that providers have looked to for their patients because of the outcomes that have come out of that facility by people who care, by good administration and by community support, including the Lincoln County Board.”

During the board’s debate over the referendum, some officials argued that $3 million annually would not be enough to address Pine Crest’s financial challenges.

Supervisor Ken Wickham, who voted against the referendum, said the board has tried for the last decade to make Pine Crest solvent, spending $17 million since 2014. Yet, he said the county’s efforts have largely failed.

“It’s just us throwing money at a problem without coming up with a solution on how we’re going to resolve it,” Wickham said of the proposed referendum. “If we’re gonna go and ask the taxpayers to give us money, we darn well better tell them how we’re going to fix the problem with the money and that’s just not, ‘Well, it’s gonna get us by for 10 years.’”

Similarly, County Board Chair Don Friske also voted against the referendum. He said Lincoln County’s population has remained relatively flat over the last 40 years, making it difficult for the board to continue to fund rising expenses for Pine Crest and other government services.

“We are sitting on ascending expenditure requirements and no additional population or revenue,” he said. “You can’t continue to function and provide for things that are not mandated by the state.”

He added that Lincoln County already has higher property taxes per capita than the state average.

“We tax our people enough,” he said. “It isn’t about how much money we bring in, folks. It’s about how much money we spend.”

Gary Olsen, executive director of North Central Helath Care, told Wisconsin Public Radio last month that a final decision to sell the nursing home had not been made by the county.

“The only decision made is that it will stay a skilled nursing facility, so the individuals there will have a place to stay,” he said. “That’s what we know right now.”

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