Pavelski states case for sale of health care center
BY MIKE WARREN
STEVENS POINT – Portage County officials would look into the possible sale of the county-operated health care center, but not before voters get another crack at a referendum to help determine its fate. Those are the wishes of the Portage County Health Care Center Committee, following a 90-minute meeting held on Nov. 30.
The committee voted unanimously to direct staff to put together the dollars and cents of a potential sale of the facility, while simultaneously pursuing another referendum to gauge public support.
In laying out his case for selling the facility, County Executive John Pavelski told the committee Portage County does not run a health care center economically.
“If we were to build a new health care center, Portage County would have to ask the taxpayers to pay an estimated $4.5 million, up to $7.5 million, per year progressively over the next twenty years to subsidize the facility for an average of thirty-two residents,” Pavelski told the committee.
Less demand for skilled nursing facilities, combined with a shortage of skilled nursing staff, make it difficult to run a county-owned health care facility economically, according to Pavelski.
“Trying to run a small health care facility efficiently is very, very difficult and expensive,” Pavelski said.
He also noted that, between 2016 and 2022, fifty-one skilled nursing facilities have closed in Wisconsin. And he reminded the committee – and those in attendance opposed to selling the facility – that a health care center is not a government-mandated service, such as public safety and fire service, as examples.
By operating a health care center, Pavelski also stated the county is in competition with the private sector.
“Also, there’s this idea that private-run skilled nursing facilities can’t run five-star facilities. That’s a fallacy,” said Pavelski. “We’ve done some research, and out of all of the five-star skilled nursing facilities in Wisconsin, 77 percent are run by the private sector.”
Pavelski also told the gathering a prospective buyer contacted him “months ago” inquiring about purchasing the health care center.
“I recommend we continue to pursue the option of the sale of the health care center,” he said. “With all due respect, I believe this committee has no jurisdiction over the sale of the health care center. You can make a recommendation, but you have no jurisdiction.
“I have met with the potential buyer and am thoroughly impressed with their expertise, concern for excellence, quality and sense of community,” Pavelski disclosed. “It makes tremendous sense to me to look at the option of selling the health care center. Not only do they get a quality-run health care center, we save Portage County taxpayers up to $7.5 million per year and the county actually receives taxes from the private-run entity.”
Health Care Center Director Marcia McDonald noted occupancy trends have been on a downward cycle for the past handful of years, going from the hundreds down into the sixties and beyond.
“Most recently we consider it a great day when we hit thirty,” McDonald told the committee. “The consistent message during that is it’s [the care] always been excellent.”
McDonald said challenges moving forward include finding appropriate resources in terms of staffing, the daily cost of care, which now exceeds $600, and various hurdles caused by state regulations.
McDonald also noted the average length of stay used to be three years, and now it’s three days to three weeks.
Assistant Administrator Lynn Lingford told the committee a draft referendum question has been submitted to the state Department of Revenue.
“The referendum question is due to the county clerk on January 23rd and then April 2nd would be the election date,” Lingford noted for the committee.
District 19 County Supervisor Scott Soik urged the committee to target a November referendum in conjunction with next year’s Presidential election.
“We’ve all heard about how important it is to hear from the voters of Portage County,” Soik said. “Now if you go back and look on Portage County webpage, you will see that in a Presidential election year, you have almost a hundred percent more voters in November than you do April, and that’s for the last two Presidential years. So, if we truly want to hear from all the people, the majority, the most people that we can get to the polls, please, you need to look at having that referendum question in November.”
In his remarks, Committee Chair Vinnie Miresse stated that on Monday, Nov. 20, Pavelski asked him to put the topic on the agenda as a closed session item, with the intent of deliberating the sale of the health care center.
“I did not feel comfortable putting this on the agenda without consent from the entire committee because we had never deliberated on potentially selling this facility at all.”
Miresse said he would be willing to put the topic on the agenda as an open-session discussion item, to see if the committee wanted to make a recommendation regarding the future of the facility.
Miresse said he submitted the agenda’s wording to staff for the Nov. 30 meeting, which he said was then forwarded to the county’s Corporation Counsel for clarification on the wording he chose.
“As the chair of the committee, I don’t tend to assert myself very much because I look to work very collaboratively, but I don’t need to ask permission of Corporation Counsel or anybody else to put something on this agenda,” Miresse said. “That is up to the chair to decide. That is what all the other chairs do. So, when this was forwarded on, I said, ‘I don’t really feel that this needs to go to Corporation Counsel for any kind of recommendation or approval because I’m the chair of the committee and I’m happy with the wording and the verbiage within this agenda item.’ It kind of floundered around for a week, with different people chiming in about whether this was going to be on the agenda or not.”
Miresse said he had multiple conversations with staff and Corp. Counsel regarding what exactly should be placed on the Nov. 30 agenda.
“I did not feel comfortable with his (Corp. Counsel) recommendation because it wasn’t what Executive Pavelski had asked me to do,” Miresse told the rest of the committee and those in the audience, which included a handful of county supervisors. “He (Pavelski) had asked me to put something in closed session to deliberate on the sale of the facility. I didn’t feel that was right for the committee to have that sprung upon them because we haven’t even given direction to move forward in that way,” Miresse added. “So, I put it on as an open-session version of a closed-session item.”
Miresse also said the item was not sprung on the committee, as some in the audience had suggested during their citizen comments.
“It was asked for on November 21st, and it was put on the agenda the day before this meeting,” Miresse said. “So, I’m a bit frustrated that I was not allowed to do my job as a chairman and have my request…it’s not even a request because it is my obligation to set the agenda,” Miresse added. “Then it was kicked around for over a week.”
“Did Corp. Counsel give you wording?” asked County Board Chairman Al Haga, from his seat in the audience.
“He did,” Miresse replied.
“Why was that not used?” Haga wondered.
“It’s not what was asked of me,” answered Miresse.
“I sit on and chair two other committees,” Haga stated. “Everything that I put on goes through Corp. Counsel before it’s put on the agenda. He makes the recommendations. I go by his recommendation. Why did you not go by his recommendation?” Haga asked.
“Because what was asked of me was to go into closed session to deliberate on the sale of the facility, and then Executive Pavelski said, ‘All I need is your signature so I can keep moving forward,’” Miresse disclosed. “So I put that down here as, ‘Well, he actively asked me to have the committee pursue sale of this facility.’ Corporation Counsel, on the other hand, they said, ‘Why don’t you put this down for discussion only: Considerations to continue health care center operations with possible sale of the health care center.’ That’s not what was asked of me,” Miresse replied. “What was asked of me was to go into closed session to deliberate sale of the facility.”
Miresse also indicated Pavelski asked him to remove the open-session item from the agenda.
“I did not feel comfortable doing that,” Miresse said. “I feel like we need to talk about this. We need a decision to be made. Portage County has a beautiful habit of kicking cans down the road.”
Miresse also pointed out that the committee’s wish for a referendum does not mean the question will automatically be put to the voters in the spring.
“The full county board has the privilege to put that referendum language on the ballot in April,” he said. “If they do not vote to support it, it will not be there and we are in the same predicament as we are today.”
When asked whether Executive Pavelski needs committee or county board approval to move forward with a sale of the health care center, Miresse said, “You’d typically go through the committee process to get guidance. We are the legislative body. We are the ones who set policy and procedure and work with operations of the facility. This directly would affect the operations of the facility. Our job is to legislate. The county executive is to administer the wishes and the policies of the legislative body.”
A third referendum would ask voters for up to an additional $3.5 million per year for the next two decades. That’s on top of the $4.5 million already approved by voters in previous polling in 2022.
In 2018, residents voted in favor of increasing property taxes by up to $1.4 million a year from 2019-2022, for a total of four years, in hopes that a more permanent, long-term funding solution could be worked out during that time.