Livelihoods could be at stake with health care center referendum
“We at the local level have to ask the question ‘what is our responsibility to the poorest of our elderly and disabled?’ — and that’s a moral question.” – District 3 Supervisor Meleesa Johnson
By Joe Bachman
STEVENS POINT — Simply put, the future of the Portage County Health Care Center is literally in your hands.
The Nov. 6 referendum will ask residents if the health care center is worth increasing property taxes by up to $1.4 million a year from 2019-2022, for a total of four years. This would result in an approximate 5.43 percent increase over the allowable levy by the state.
The Nov. 6 Referendum
A “yes” vote would mean a $24.48 annual increase in property taxes per $100,000 assessed value. This would keep the 5-star medical facility operating for at least four years until a permanent funding solution can be worked out by county officials.
A “no” vote could mean county officials would have to lean on reserve funding to keep the center open for another year. In such a case, an evaluation would need to be made regarding whether or not to close the facility, or sell it to a private enterprise.
What’s at stake?
According to District 3 County Board Supervisor Maleessa Johnson, there’s much more at stake than numbers, as lives are on the line, both literally and figuratively for this upcoming referendum.
“You have 84 employees whose livelihood is hanging in the balance, so that’s one aspect, but if you get to the people they serve — their lives and how they will be cared for is also in the balance.” said Johnson.
For over 100 years, the health care center has been in operation, with keeping at its current location since 1931. Even despite an aging facility with maintenance and building needs, they carry a 5-star rating for Federal Medicare Services. Part of these services include the rise of in-home care, which allows seniors to “age in place” to recover from ailments from the comfort of their own home.
Why does the facility need taxpayer help?
The last two budget cycles in Wisconsin have seen cuts to Medicaid, leaving a deficit for funding each year. While this deficit has been traditionally paid for with county tax dollars, said funding has been shifted away from the health care center, leaving a financial gap for the facility.
County officials cannot increase taxes beyond the levy without the permission of voters, hence creating the referendum.
Results from a most recent state survey indicated that a large majority of residents not only wanted to keep the 80-year-old facility, but keep it county-owned, as well. These numbers translate to a high 93 percent of Portage County residents who have the belief that the facility is an important and valuable service, with 78 percent supporting an increase in the tax levy.
For Johnson, the question comes down to ultimate support for caring for the poorest elderly and disabled individuals.
“…because it’s been shifted onto us, the question is ‘do you support caring for those people?”, asked Johnson. “When you’re on Medicaid that means you have no other resources, there’s nothing else — you have expended all of your Medicare benefits; you’ve used up all of your retirement, your earnings — those are all gone and you’re left with basic poverty.”
For those in opposition to the tax levy increase, Johnson offers another perspective — as it’s just not a small annual increase, but a community investment, in what is a strength-based health care facility. For many, it’s a continued lease on life in better health.
“If we can provide them high quality care and we can help support those poor, elderly and disabled through tax dollars — they’re going to leave the facility, go back to their homes, and still be productive members of our society,” said Johnson. “When we invest in that little bit of tax dollars to support them so they can continue to be and enjoy a high quality of life in the Stevens Point/Portage County community.”
The health care referendum is one of six questions Portage County residents will answer on the Nov. 6 ballots.