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Future of central Wisconsin county-owned nursing home unclear after sale falls through

Lincoln County has been debating the future of Pine Crest Nursing home for more than a year

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 is uncertain after a potential sale of the facility fell through.

At a committee meeting Tuesday, Lincoln County officials said a planned sale of Pine Crest Nursing Home in Merrill had been canceled.

“At this point in time, there is no offer on the table, (no) counter offer or anything such,” County Board chair Jesse Boyd told the Lincoln County Administrative & Legislative Committee.

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The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors has been deliberating the future of Pine Crest for more than a year. Last summer, the county began considering selling the nursing home. At the time, officials said the county couldn’t afford to continue operating the facility it’s owned since the 1950s.

Community members who want to keep the facility under county ownership have formed the People for Pine Crest group, attending county meetings and pushing for the community to have more of a voice in the facility’s future.

“We felt very strongly that it should remain a local county responsibility as it has been,” said Merrill resident Gene Bebel. “We still feel that, with the sale not going through, we’d like to be a part of trying to help maintain it and keep it going.”

The county had found a potential buyer for Pine Crest, and in February approved selling the facility and the adjacent Health and Human Services building to a pair of companies, both listing city of Ladysmith resident Grant Thayer as their registered agent. 

Thayer is the chief executive officer and owner of Care & Rehab, a nursing home company with facilities in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The sale was initially schedule to close by June 30. But last month, the county board approved moving the closing date to the end of September.

On June 28, Richard Summerfield, an attorney for Thayer, sent a letter to Lincoln County, terminating the purchase agreement. Summerfield wrote that a lawsuit filed against the county challenging the purchase agreement could “adversely affect” the nursing home. Summerfield did not return a phone call to his firm seeking comment on Wednesday.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Lincoln County Administrative Coordinator Renee Kreuger said the lawsuit was not part of the city’s negotiations with the purchaser on moving the closing date. She said the lawsuit had been disclosed to the buyer and that the county assumed both sides had continued to negotiate in good faith.

“This letter came as a complete surprise to us,” Kreuger said. “It leads us to question whether the purchaser was continuing to negotiate in good faith, but that is not for any of us to determine.”

The lawsuit referenced in Summerfield’s letter was filed in May by Lincoln County Board Supervisor Don Dunphy. In the suit, Dunphy argued the county’s purchase agreement for Pine Crest was not approved by the proper committee before it reached the county board. He asked the court to nullify the agreement and forbid the county to move forward with the sale.

Dunphy said Wednesday via email that he wants to ensure Pine Crest remains county-owned now that the sale is off. He called for the county board to consider putting a referendum on the issue on the November ballot.

“Last year the county board voted down a similar resolution for a binding referendum funding Pine Crest that would have raised property taxes $85 per $100,000 of equalized value,” Dunphy said. “This would have amounted to an annual property tax increase of about $128 per annum on a $150,000 home.”

County Board chair Boyd told WPR Wednesday that county officials felt the rug had been pulled out from under them when they received the letter from Thayer’s attorney. He said he thought the buyer would have maintained Pine Crest as a skilled nursing facility.

He also said the county doesn’t have enough money in the budget to keep the nursing home open in 2025 without increasing taxes or bonding for operational expenses.

“We all want our residents taken care of, and we all care for the staff and want to make sure they’re taken care of,” Boyd said. “What the future is now, I don’t know. It’s scary. It scares all of us.”

He said officials will continue to brainstorm solutions, but it’s not clear whether that includes looking for another buyer or putting a referendum on the ballot.

Town of Pine River resident Eileen Guthrie has been active with the People for Pine Crest group. She said the sale falling through creates an opportunity for the county to get advocates more involved in the decision-making process.

Guthrie also said she believes maintaining county ownership of the facility will help ensure workers and residents are better cared for because the county is not profit motivated.

“In my mind, the landscape is changing and let’s take this opportunity to embrace that and take a chance on it,” she said. “I can’t guarantee it, but the signs are there that it could be better.”