With 15-6 vote, Lincoln County board takes first step toward selling Pine Crest Nursing Home

By Jalen Maki

Tomahawk Leader Editor

MERRILL – After several months of mulling options regarding the future of Pine Crest Nursing Home in Merrill, the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors this week took the first step in the process of selling the county-owned facility.

During its three-plus-hour meeting at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill on Tuesday, May 16, the board voted 15-6 to direct the county’s Administrative and Legislative (A&L) Committee to begin the process of securing the services of a broker to put Pine Crest up for sale.

Pine Crest, which has operated in Merrill for about 70 years and is owned by Lincoln County, has experienced financial losses in recent years.

An ad hoc committee formed in June 2022 was tasked with coming up with actions Lincoln County could take regarding the facility’s future.

In March, Pine Crest Ad Hoc Committee Chair and District 18 Supervisor Ken Wickham laid out a summary of a nearly 170-page report prepared by the committee. He also offered several options the county could consider proceeding with.

In the roughly two months since the report was released, Supervisors have individually and as a board mulled the proposed options, among which were seeking ways to cut costs and create additional revenues at Pine Crest, downsizing or finding alternative uses for the facility, selling the property and/or holding a referendum to allow Lincoln County voters to decide whether or not the county should continue its operation of Pine Crest.

In a letter to Pine Crest residents dated Friday, May 12, District 9 Supervisor and Board Chair Don Friske said the board had narrowed its options concerning the facility’s future down to two: “(drafting) a referendum question asking our voters to support an increase in their property taxes to fund Pine Crest’s operational losses; or “(exploring) the sale of the Pine Crest Nursing Home to a privately-owned, skilled nursing home care provider.”

Public comment period

Several individuals, including residents and an employee of Pine Crest, utilized the meeting’s public comment period to voice their support for Lincoln County’s continued ownership of the facility and keeping the nursing home open.

One Pine Crest resident said he’s been residing at the facility since 2019.

“I don’t want to live under the bridge in a pasteboard box,” he said. “That’s the only place I know I could go (if Pine Crest closed).”

The individual noted that he had spoken to several of his fellow Pine Crest residents, who he said hope the nursing home “(remains) a viable entity.”

A second individual, a Pine Crest employee, said he’s been working in nursing facilities around the state for about 30 years.

“I’ve seen a lot of nursing homes,” he stated. “I’ve seen very, very few that can compare, quality-wise, to Pine Crest, and I’ve seen none that have the absolute community, family feel that we have at Pine Crest.”

The individual noted that he believes that atmosphere is attributable to the facility’s county ownership, with many residents and staff members being Lincoln County residents.

“Should we privatize the home, trust me, care will go down,” he said. “Then we’re looking strictly at a profit motive. Profit motives with nursing care for elderly, disabled folks, it’s a real tough game in the nursing business, and ultimately, quality suffers. … I’m praying that you give us a chance so that we can maintain and be a family.”

Discussion on Pine Crest

Pine Crest was the focus of discussion among the board for much of the meeting.

Prior to discussion, Friske said he wished for the board to choose a direction forward regarding the future Pine Crest by the end of the meeting.

District 12 Supervisor and Finance and Insurance Committee Chair Julie DePasse opined that selling Pine Crest to a private entity would be “the best way (the board) can ensure the ongoing care of the residents that live there, not just now, but in the future.”

“Pine Crest has lost money for the last 15 years,” DePasse stated. “It has lost over a million dollars per year, on average, since 2016.”

DePasse, who is also a member of the Pine Crest Ad Hoc Committee, said covering all expenses related to Pine Crest, including the estimated $13 million in improvements to the facility, deficit averages and maintenance and administrative costs, would carry a price tag of about $4 million per year.

“We don’t have that,” DePasse stated. “If we go to a referendum and it fails, then we’re in a much worse position, because then it’s a distress sale. Buyers know that, and worse, the employees and the residents there know that.”

DePasse noted that a proposed referendum, which was taken up later in the meeting, did not ask voters for a specific dollar amount to fund Pine Crest operations.

“So, if we do decide we don’t want a private entity to run (Pine Crest), then I think we have to give the voters a referendum that’s real,” DePasse said. “We have to ask for the actual amount it costs to finance that, and we have to be honest about that number.”

District 20 Supervisor and Pine Crest Ad Hoc Committee member Angela Cummings said Lincoln County “needs to sell the Pine Crest skilled nursing facility as soon as possible, for two reasons.”

“We need to ensure our residents are provided the best and most seamless care possible, and ensure that the employees are treated fairly,” Cummings stated. “Lincoln County is in an advantageous position to sell Pine Crest and ensure that it remains a skilled nursing facility. Statistics show an average of 42 residents are turned away every month. There is no guarantee that a room would be available for you or any resident of Lincoln County when you need one, and neither you nor I know what our health concerns will be in the future and whether this facility could adequately manage them.”

Resolution beginning sale process

District 13 Supervisor Calvin Callahan stated his opinion that Lincoln County should look into a sale of Pine Crest and made a motion to direct the A&L Committee to begin the process of hiring a broker to sell the facility.

During discussion on the motion, District 3 Supervisor Elizabeth McCrank opined that beginning the sale process was “premature,” saying the board should “take up the issue of finding out what the public as a whole wants us to do before we begin taking that action.”

District 22 Supervisor Greg Hartwig said he had received “approximately 20 phone calls and messages” and had spoken with other individuals regarding the nursing home.

“I haven’t heard one person say they wanted us to sell Pine Crest,” Hartwig stated, adding that he supported the creation of a referendum to “let the people speak.”

Following further discussion, the board voted 15-6 to approve Callahan’s motion to direct the A&L Committee to begin the process of hiring a broker to sell Pine Crest.

Voting in favor were Friske, Wickham, DePasse, Cummings, Callahan, District 2 Supervisor Lori Anderson-Malm, District 4 Supervisor Steve Osness Jr., District 5 Supervisor Don Wendorf, District 8 Supervisor Julie Thiel, District 10 Supervisor and Board Vice Chair Jesse Boyd, District 11 Supervisor Randy Detert, District 15 Supervisor Marty Lemke, District 16 Supervisor Mike Loka, District 17 Supervisor Jim Meunier and District 21 Supervisor Eugene Simon.

McCrank, Hartwig, District 1 Supervisor William Bialecki, District 6 Supervisor Norbert Ashbeck, District 7 Supervisor Greta Rusch and District 19 Supervisor Julie Allen were opposed.

Board mulls referendum

The board later in the meeting discussed creating a referendum regarding Pine Crest’s future.

McCrank introduced a motion seeking to create an advisory referendum designed to gather public opinion on the topic.

The board discussed whether or not a potential referendum should be advisory or binding before ultimately voting 13-8 to table the motion indefinitely.

Next board meeting

The next meeting of the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors will be held at the Lincoln County Service Center, 801 N. Sales St., Merrill, on Tuesday, June 20 at 6 p.m.

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