Counties in Illinois have many legal duties, but running a nursing home isn't one of them.
In November 2002, Champaign County voters approved by an impressive majority two property tax hike proposals — one to build a new $20 million-plus county nursing home and the other to help pay for its operating expenses.
The debate that preceded it was lengthy and occasionally rancorous, but mostly one-sided. Most everybody — Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, young and old — embraced the operation of a nursing home as a leading priority for county government.
"This has become such an emotional issue to people that the (cost) numbers seem to be irrelevant," Champaign County Board member Scott Tapley said at the time.
Since then, the nursing home issue has surfaced again and again. Construction problems plagued the 243-bed facility, driving costs up much higher than expected.
In a bizarre turf battle, county board members warred over the facility's management, finally creating a separate oversight board to shield the nursing home from political gamesmanship. That board ultimately approved the hiring of a private management firm to lead the facility out of the wilderness and put an end to regular requests for financial bailouts.
Through thick and thin — mostly thin — county board members have soldiered in the hope that better times were just around the corner. Through it all, most of them have offered but one response to the question of whether operating a public nursing home is a wise expenditure of scarce public resources when there are private facilities that provide the same service.
The taxpayers sent a clear message in November 2002, they have said repeatedly, and the county has no choice but to maintain the nursing home — seemingly at all costs.
But did taxpayers really say that when they approved the referendum? Or is that claim an overly broad interpretation of the voters' mandate?
Is the operation of a taxpayer-subsidized nursing home really the raison d'etre of Champaign County government?
Supporters will have to ask themselves that question once again as the nursing home confronts a new, more serious and what appears to be a chronic financial problem.
Through no fault of its own, the nursing home is deeply in debt.
The nursing home's debt, as of Sept. 30, was $3.1 million. It's expected to rise to as much as $4.4 million by the end of the year.
Its financial problems are so daunting that the county is borrowing against future revenue to try to pay its bill. It is issuing $850,000 in tax anticipation warrants that will be repaid next year when citizens pay their property taxes. It also is considering taking the rare action of issuing another $800,000 plus in revenue anticipation warrants — meaning it wants to borrow money from local banks using future revenue as collateral for repaying the loans. Officials say that sum could grow to $2 million-plus.
There is, however, no guarantee that banks will be interested in the revenue anticipation warrants because the nursing home's ability to repay the debt is based on the state paying its $1.5 million-and-growing Medicaid bills to the nursing home.
Another $2.3 million is owed to the nursing home by the federal government. Unfortunately, the state of Illinois is effectively bankrupt, having embraced the nonpayment of bills as official policy to deal with cash-flow problems, and no one with any sense is forecasting improvement in the state's revenue picture.
What that means is that even if the state eventually pays its current bills there's no reason to think it will make timely payments on its future bills.
It is well nigh impossible for the county to manage its way around this kind of cash-flow problem because its problems are not of its own making. The problem lies in Springfield and, if anything has become clear over the past year, it's that Gov. Quinn and state legislators aren't up to resolving it.
In the meantime, the county board keeps soldiering on, applying Band-Aids here and there while hoping, seemingly in vain, that circumstances will improve. How much longer can it embrace the position that the nursing home must be maintained at all costs?