DANVILLE — The five Republicans vying for the three Vermilion County Board seats in District 3 in Tuesday's primary race agree the county has tough decisions ahead concerning Vermilion Manor Nursing Home.
But they don't all agree on what should be done with the county-owned long-term care facility that recently survived a cash flow crisis stemming from the state's slow reimbursement of Medicaid, which covers a majority of the nursing home's expenses.
A newcomer, Charles Nesbitt, and a former two-year county board member, Mary Morrison, are challenging the Republicans who currently hold the three District 3 seats, Steve Fourez, Rick Knight and David Stone. Three will advance from Tuesday's primary election to the November general election where, at this time, they face no other Democrat or independent candidates.
Of the incumbents, Knight has the most experience, first elected in 1998. Fourez was elected in 2006, and Stone in 2010. Morrison was appointed to the board in 1997 and served for two years.
Nesbitt said he wants to open the lines of communication among the board and constituents.
"I want to know what they are thinking, and I want everyone's input," said Nesbitt, who would like to see the nursing home sold to a faith-based private company that specializes in skilled care. That would take the financial burden away from the county, he said, and the funds from the sale of the facility could pay for the planned renovations at the Vermilion County Courthouse, eliminating the need for a bond issue.
Nesbitt said a referendum will have to be held for voters to decide if the county should stay in the nursing home business. If so, he said, they must be prepared for a hefty tax increase, because the Medicaid situation won't be fixed overnight. Nesbitt said $2.6 million in improvements to the building and grounds are needed at Vermilion Manor, which has been ignored for 35 years with no capital improvement funds set aside. He said he wants a small percentage of fees collected at the courthouse to be put in a fund for future courthouse renovations.
Fourez said the state's fiscal problems will affect the nursing home and other departments, too. After 25 years operating his own farm, sitting on various boards and six years as a county board member, Fourez said he has knowledge that will be crucial as the county deals with a state that is trying to find its way out of an economic hole.
"We're being forced to be the state's banker," he said, adding that the county will have to decide where it can make cuts and not reduce the value of county government. "It's not going to be easy, and everything will have to be examined."
Alternatives to the nursing home's management structure need to examined, he said, and all options need to be on the table.
"Whatever option is available that keeps the doors open, that's what we are going to need to look at," he said.
Knight, who's also spent many years operating his own farm, said he first ran for the county board, because he didn't like the board's direction, but in recent years, the county has lived within its financial means and still provided services. He said he has no political agenda or aspirations other than representing people in his district.
Knight said he does not support raising property taxes. But, he said, he would be open to a local referendum seeking more financial support for the nursing home but only as a last resort. "We got to watch how we spend. We must be good stewards with the taxpayer's money," he said.
Stone said he has enjoyed his first two years as a county board member and wants to continue reaching out to and serving his constituents.
"I've lived here my whole life and am fortunate to be elected into a position where I can pay the community back with the desire to represent them, and I hope I can continue to do this in the future," he said.
Stone said the state is shifting the funding burden to the local level and every department in the county is figuring out how to manage with less money. He said the county needs to be diligent in focusing on financial issues in all departments, but there are always other concerns like coal mining and wind energy.
"I think those are hot items at the county level at this point, and we just need to be focused with the best interest of the people in the communities as we move forward," he said.
Aside from the financial issues at the nursing home, Stone said the county must continue to watch spending and try to get the most "bang for its buck," but also do its best to provide for the residents as well as the employees.
"There will be tough decisions coming, but we need to keep patients and employees out there our top concern," he said.
Morrison said she has business experience and believes a 49-year-old woman from the district could mix up the county board a little and bring some new thoughts, ideas and experience.
"I'm a firm believer that our government should reflect our population. They are representing all of us," she said.
Morrison said she's a fiscal conservative who believes the county is living within its budget right now.
"I just want to hold the line on how we spend our money. I have concerns about the wind farms and ... the nursing home," said Morrison, adding that the nursing home had financial issues 12 years ago when she was a board member, and voters approved the property tax levy but financial problems are still an issue.
"So again, the voters really need to think about whether they want to be in the nursing home business," she said. "Is that really what our county should be putting our resources into?"
Morrison said she supports green energy, but wind farms are being subsidized by government and she's skeptical of that and questions how many wind farms the county should permit.
"I'm all about jobs and green energy, but I just think we need to continue to gather information and not jump into something," she said.