URBANA — A plan to ask voters to help decide the future of the Champaign County Nursing Home may not make it to the fall ballot, say supporters of the referendum questions.
The proposal may be discussed at tonight's meeting (Tuesday, Aug. 7) of the county board — or it may be tabled for lack of support, said board members Brendan McGinty and Ron Bensyl.
The county board will meet as a committee of the whole at 6 p.m. at the Brookens Administrative Center, 1776 E. Washington St., U. The board also will consider a number of other issues, including land acquisition options for the Olympian Drive project north of Urbana, a zoning change to allow expansion of the Premier Cooperative-Fulls Siding grain elevator in rural St, Joseph, and a grant application for continued operation of a rural transportation service in northern Champaign County.
The fall ballot proposal — two separate questions to either increase the nursing home property tax rate from the current 3 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, or to give the county board the power to sell the nursing home if the tax increase was not approved — was proposed as a way to head off anticipated financial problems at the nursing home.
"All I'm looking for are options if the numbers go south," said Urbana Democrat Brendan McGinty. "But the majority of the (Democratic) caucus clearly thinks that the nursing home is not in a difficult financial situation now. They say that we are in the black. That may be to some extent, but our payables are at 120 days and reimbursements are going to be going down. And so I think it is being short-sighted."
McGinty said that only two of the board's 15 Democrats favor putting the questions on the Nov. 6 ballot. Republican board members are more supportive, said Bensyl.
"I don't think there are any Republicans who are particularly fond of the tax increase part of it, but I think as a package, of putting both of them together, I believe we probably have 11 of 12 votes on our side," said the Republican board member from Royal.
But McGinty and Bensyl were unsure Monday how many board members would be at tonight's meeting.
"We'll have to count noses and see where we're at and go from there," Bensyl said. "If it looks like there aren't enough votes to get it done, then I don't care to sit there ... and put the public through 2 1/2 hours of discussion over this thing because I can see it lasting forever. ... So if the votes aren't there, let's figure that out and pull it from the agenda. That would be my preference."
McGinty was of like mind.
"If the votes aren't there, we aren't going to spend hours to reach a losing vote," he said.
But he said he still believes the nursing home faces a difficult future.
"Our caucus, I think that people sometimes believe that we're going to grow trees in that big field outside of Brookens and grow money on them. I don't know where else that money will come from," said McGinty, who like Bensyl is not running for re-election this fall. "They don't even want to ask the people the question. And to me that seems short-sighted."
Data presented last month showed that the nursing home had lost money in eight of the last 12 months and had a cash balance of $962,641. It also had accounts payable of $2 million, but accounts receivable of more than $4 million.
Because of the potential for more cuts in state and federal funding to the nursing home, McGinty and Bensyl said the county board should have the ability to address funding shortfalls.
"I think it is more difficult than ever to make money. The big ideas from the nursing home board are to get a line of credit, which I think is a Band-Aid, and to do dialysis. Now dialysis is fine as a business, but it's going to cost us $300,000 to get it going. Where's that money going to come from? We don't have the money for that. And so the question is, should a government body be in this business? I think we need to ask the very people who are paying for that."
Bensyl added that "I hope I'm wrong and I hope the state gets its act together through this and that the nursing home does fine and that things are great. But my concern is that we're tying the hands of the next county board from having the ability to do anything. This thing could turn sour so fast and they're going to be stuck, waiting for an election to try to get a referendum out there. Our idea is just to give them the ability to react quickly."
But Mary Ellen O'Shaughnessey, chair of a nursing home advisory board that last month went on record as opposed to the ballot questions, said Monday that she believes the nursing home can work through any financial difficulties.
"I understand the county board members' concerns, but I think the nursing home board is doing what we can to find alternative revenue and work with the state on our reimbursements," said O'Shaughnessey, who plans to attend tonight's meeting.
A letter the nursing home board sent to the county board, urging rejection of the referendum idea, said that "(w)hile we recognize that we have severe challenges with regard to cash flow, we cannot support asking for an additional $2.3 million in property taxes from the citizens of Champaign County."
And the nursing home board said that a vote on selling or leasing the nursing home "will generate a public perception of uncertainty regarding the future" of the facility.
"We further believe that, even if the voters approved this question, it is highly unlikely that there are private businesses who would be interested in procuring the nursing home and maintaining the current mission of serving the Medicaid population currently served by the Champaign County Nursing Home."