County Board rejects resolution seeking to put Pine Crest funding referendum on Spring Election ballots
By Jalen Maki
The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors last week rejected a resolution that would have allowed voters to decide whether or not they want to financially support operations and maintenance at Pine Crest Nursing Home.
The resolution, which failed by a 13-9 vote during the Board’s meeting at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, sought to place a binding referendum on 2024 Spring Election ballots.
Under the proposed referendum, if it had made it onto ballots next April and been approved by voters, Lincoln County would have been allowed to exceed levy limits by $3 million per year for 10 years to fund operations and maintenance at Pine Crest Nursing Home in Merrill.
The referendum would have had a tax impact of $85.14 per $100,000.00 of equalized value of private property, according to the resolution.
The rejection of the resolution comes about three months after the Board approved a resolution directing 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.
In June, the A&L Committee voted to recommend Marcus & Millichap as the broker to represent Lincoln County in the event the Board moves forward with selling the County-owned facility, which has experienced millions of dollars in financial losses in recent years.
Pine Crest did not appear on the County Board’s July meeting agenda. The A&L Committee discussed Pine Crest and Marcus & Millichap contract negations in closed session, per Wisconsin statutes, on Wednesday, Aug. 2, but did not take any action after returning to open session.
The sale of Pine Crest was one of several options presented to the Board by an Ad Hoc Committee that was established in June 2022 and tasked with coming up with actions Lincoln County could take regarding the facility’s future.
In a May letter to Pine Crest residents, District 9 Supervisor and Board Chair Don Friske said the Board had narrowed its options down to either drafting a referendum question asking Lincoln County taxpayers to support Pine Crest operations and maintenance or exploring the sale of the facility to a privately-owned, skilled nursing home care provider.
With the proposed referendum resolution’s failure, Pine Crest’s future remains uncertain.
Public comment period
A large portion of last week’s roughly two-and-a-half-hour meeting was focused on Pine Crest.
The meeting was well-attended by members of the public, with several individuals holding signs with messages in support of the proposed referendum.
Prior to the vote on the resolution, about a dozen people utilized the meeting’s public comment period to voice their support for Lincoln County’s continued ownership of Pine Crest and the proposed referendum.
Dr. Laurie Wolf said she and her husband each had more than 30 years of medical experience in the area. Her husband was previously employed at Pine Crest.
Wolf called Pine Crest a “local treasure where community members have been diligent and caring for patients from their own community, and sometimes their own families.”
Judy Woller told the Board she had spoken to residents of each of Lincoln County’s 22 Supervisory Districts.
“I have not found anybody who wants to have Pine Crest sold,” she said.
Woller said she hoped the Board would “vote for what’s good for the people in Pine Crest and what’s good for the people in Lincoln County.”
“They deserve nothing better than that,” Woller said. “That’s why they elected you to represent them.”
Irene Mehlos told the Board that if Pine Crest were to be sold to a private, for-profit entity, “the County and the people will lose any say over what happens to it in the future.”
“There is no guarantee it will remain a skilled nursing home, much less a five-star rated one, when it does not bring the desired profit,” she said.
Mehlos said area seniors “are not for profit.”
“If you ask them, if you ask us, the people here care about what happens to our seniors, and we care about each other,” she said. “This referendum is how you ask them. If you choose to support it, I believe history will look favorably on you as a County Board who faced difficult challenges, listened to the people, and responded to their needs. If not, if it’s just about finding the easiest path forward to get in the black for the short term, the problem will only grow as our population ages. To sell Pine Crest is to sell out on the people.”
Todd Frederick voiced his support for the proposed referendum, saying the roughly $85 tax impact for $100,000 of assessed value over the course of 10 years is “a small price to pay if it means Pine Crest will be here for generations.”
“This is too big for just the Board to make the decision,” Frederick said. “The citizens should have the right to decide this issue. Let them vote, and then we will all know the direction people want.”
The Board’s discussion on the resolution, authored by District 6 Supervisor Norbert Ashbeck and co-sponsored by District 22 Supervisor Greg Hartwig, began a little over an hour into the meeting.
In providing a brief overview of the resolution, Ashbeck said he originally looked at a 20-year plan. Ashbeck explained that Lincoln County Maintenance Director Patrick Gierl estimated that maintenance costs over that period of time would total around $20 million. Most of the work would need to occur within a decade, leading to Ashbeck crafting a 10-year proposal.
Ashbeck said that after taking care of necessary improvements over the 10-year referendum, there would “hopefully” be less capital outlay “because most of the stuff would be newer.”
“I feel the people should have a voice to vote,” Ashbeck said.
By voting in support of the resolution, Ashbeck added, the Board itself would not be raising taxes.
“A ‘yes’ means we’re giving the people in Lincoln County the choice to vote whether they want to raise taxes or not,” he said.
A proposed amendment seeking to raise the referendum request from $3 million per year to $4.5 million per year failed after receiving an 11-11 tie vote.
Another proposed amendment, which sought to hold the referendum later this year rather than next spring, was also rejected. Lincoln County Clerk Chris Marlowe said the earliest the County could have held the referendum would have been around mid-November, under State statutes. Marlowe estimated this would have a carried a roughly $30,000 price tag for the County.
Upon returning to discussion on the original resolution, District 21 Supervisor Eugene Simon said that although he “(doesn’t) like the idea of Pine Crest going away,” maintaining County ownership of the facility is a “losing proposition” from a fiscal standpoint.
“If the referendum fails, Pine Crest closes,” Simon said, adding that in regard to a potential referendum, “you’re playing with fire, in my opinion. … Remember, that if the referendum succeeds, there will be more referendums down the road. … I’m willing to tell you that $85 a year is a pipe dream. It is not going to stop there, because costs are increasing.”
Simon opined that the County’s best course of action is to sell Pine Crest.
“This is way too early, in my estimation, to run a referendum,” he said. “Power to the people, but be careful what you ask for, because I think other voters, those not here tonight, are probably not going to be real happy about their taxes going up, nor are the developers or the businesses.”
District 13 Supervisor Calvin Callahan said he was “a little wary of a referendum” because he was “not satisfied with the $3 million number.”
“We have heard why that number is not sufficient, and I feel as if we are going to be in the same boat 10 years down the road, making this decision again,” he said.
Callahan said his goal is to “keep the services that Pine Crest offers here in Merrill, to keep the doors open for all citizens to use when that time comes, and to keep the people that are employed under Pine Crest employed for hopefully longer than 10 years.”
Callahan added that he believed the Board’s decision would be “based on those three pieces of criteria.”
“You may not be happy with it, but I know what I’m going to be voting to do, and that’s because I know it’s going to be the right choice to ensure that all of you who are residents at Pine Crest can remain there and the people that need to go there in the future have a place to go,” he said.
District 14 Supervisor Brian Hafeman noted that in the event the referendum would fail, the County would still have the option to “look for possible buyers” for Pine Crest or extend the County’s contract with Marcus & Millichap, which runs through early next year but expires before the Spring Election.
“I just don’t see why we wouldn’t give this every opportunity,” Hafeman said.
Friske pointed out that Lincoln County’s population has remained stagnant over the last roughly 40 years, while the County’s property tax rate is $5.47 per $1,000 of valuation, among the highest in the state. The state average is $3.80 per $1,000 of valuation.
“If we’re feeling the pinch, it’s because we have not grown,” Friske said. “We are sitting on ascending expenditure requirements and no additional population or revenue. You can’t continue to function and provide for things that are not mandated by the state.”
Lincoln County’s sales tax revenue is around the state average, while the property tax levy per capita was above the state average in 2021, Friske added.
“We tax our people enough,” he said. “It isn’t about how much money we bring in, folks. It’s about how much money we spend.”
Friske said the previous iteration of the Board, at the recommendation of the County’s Finance Committee, voted to reduce its bed count by 40 beds. Pine Crest is able to hold 160 bed licenses.
“We only have 120 bed licenses,” Friske said. “The best you can do is to have it two-thirds full. … We’re operating at 80. We’re only half full, and we’re only staffed for 90. The ability for us to continue to operate the way it is, we don’t have the capacity to do that.”
After further discussion, the original resolution was ultimately defeated by a 13-9 vote.
Voting in favor were Ashbeck, Hafeman, Hartwig, District 1 Supervisor William Bialecki, District 2 Supervisor Lori Anderson-Malm, District 3 Supervisor Elizabeth McCrank, District 5 Supervisor Don Wendorf, District 7 Supervisor Greta Rusch, and District 19 Supervisor Julie Allen.
Voting against were Callahan, DePasse, Friske, Simon, District 4 Supervisor Steve Osness Jr., District 8 Supervisor Laurie Thiel, District 10 Supervisor Jesse Boyd, District 11 Supervisor Randy Detert, District 15 Supervisor Marty Lemke, District 16 Supervisor Dana Miller, District 17 Supervisor James Meunier, District 18 Supervisor Ken Wickham, and District 20 Supervisor Angela Cummings.
Next County Board meeting
The next meeting of the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors will be held at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill on Tuesday, Sept. 19, at 6 p.m.