As some rally for referendum, DeKalb County Board moves to vote on future of struggling nursing home

SYCAMORE - The DeKalb County Board is a step closer to determining what direction to take the future of the struggling DeKalb County Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, as residents showed up this week in support of a possible ballot referendum.

The DeKalb County Board has received two offers to buy the county owned facility, which finds itself more than $7 million in debt due to what officials have said was unrealized mismanagement, delinquent billing and falling resident numbers. Both purchase offers – one for $8.1 million and another for $8.3 million – will go before the full board for a vote Wednesday.

A sale would need to be approved by a two-thirds majority DeKalb County Board vote.

Another option lies before elected officials also: A chance to ask voters to enter the debate.

“The nursing home is truly a fiscal entity and there’s been good progress made,” said Maggie Niemi, the center’s administrator who took up the post last fall. “More could be accomplished if given more time.”

The board will also decide whether to place a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot, which would ask voters to consider supporting a property tax. The annual tax would levy up to 0.1% to help aid the nursing center’s budget. If approved by voters, the county board would be authorized to levy an annual amount – which could vary year to year, but would be capped at 0.1%.

A potential sale would not rule out a referendum, however, confirmed county officials this week. If the board decides to move forward with a sale, the referendum – if approved next week – would remain on the ballot, though could be considered moot if the nursing center’s ownership changes.

Under the proposed tax levy, DeKalb county taxpayers who owned a home valued at $150,000 would pay $44, documents state. Taxpayers with homes valued at $200,000 would likely pay about $60.67, or $77.33 for homes valued at $250,000. Residents with homes valued at $300,000 would be expected to pay $94 for the nursing home tax, according to county financial projections.

Halfway through its fiscal year, county staff said they expect the nursing home to fall short on its budgeted revenue by about $5.3 million in 2022.

The county board will take up all three votes – two purchase offers and a referendum – at its July 20 meeting. If a purchase offer is accepted, a month-long period of due diligence would be required, and the county board could decide to back out, documents state. A referendum would not approve a tax levy, but rather put the question up to the taxpayers in November.

A supported referendum would not necessarily mean a levy would move forward, however. And it’s not the first time the DeKalb County Board has attempted to bolster nursing center finances with property taxes. Four months ago, as debt debate raged on at the county level regarding the facility, the county board proposed – and then declined – to place a referendum on the June primary ballot. In 1991, DeKalb County voters passed a referendum which authorized the county government to levy taxes for the nursing home annually for 30 years. That tax was never levied, documents show.

It was a familiar sight at Wednesday’s special Committee of the Whole meeting in Sycamore, as nursing center employees and members American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees No. 3537 picketed in opposition to a sale. The union represents over 200 county employees from the nursing center, government offices and health department, roughly 2/3 of the members work at the nursing home.

Chuck Coulter, who works in maintenance at the DCRNC and is union president, said the staff is doing everything they can to keep the nonprofit facility under the ownership of the county. In an interview before the meeting, Coulter said he believes if the nursing center was privatized, it wouldn’t benefit the residents as it does now.

“Medicine for profit is an evil this world doesn’t need, and this is what we’re looking at right now by selling to these two companies that are on the board right now – Saba and Illuminate,” said Coulter, who lives in Sycamore.

Saba Healthcare LLC, listed at 3531 Howard St. in Skokie, about an hour east of DeKalb north of Chicago, has offered the county $8.3 million to purchase the nursing center. Evanston-based Illuminate HC LLC has offered $8.1 million.

“This is not what we want in our county,” Coulter said. “Anytime you invite in the scourge of the earth you get just that, and that’s what for profit medicine is.”

County Board Chairman John Frieders said it’s important for county leadership to remember fiscal issues at the nursing center impact the overall county government’s budget. The county government also oversees budgets for the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office, health department and county jail, among others.

“This is all part of the county,” Frieders said. “And the nursing home has a huge affect on the budget, as every other department also has.”

Hannah Williams, a dietary supervisor at facility and a resident of DeKalb said she’s concerned about federal Medicaid and Medicaire star ratings that Saba Healthcare and Illuminate HC have, according to data released by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“If this is their specific experience in skilled care facilities I don’t want to be a part of it,” said Willams.

Moshe Blonder, of Saba Healthcare, addressed the board Wednesday and said his company owns and operates eight skilled nursing facilities in Illinois.

“We’re not perfect but we really do strive to do our best every single day,” Blonder said.

Williams also reminded the board they’d been invited to visit the center.

“We as a county need to work with one another and not against each other,” said Williams. “This isn’t something a handful of people can fix alone, and talking about the numbers just isn’t enough.

Carolyn Morris, Ward 1 Alderwoman for the city of DeKalb, urged the board to go forward with the referendum.

“Make that an option, give the community that choice,” said Morris.

Morris said, as an economist she loves the idea of having a public nursing home because the motives are different from a for profit enterprise.

“There are many for profit strategies that we see just don’t turn out well when we have the wrong incentives,” said Morris.

During discussion on the referendum, County Board member Scott Campbell – who along with fellow board member Bill Cummings put forward an alternate plan to right-size the facility over five years, primarily through staffing cuts through attrition – asked for the referendum to be placed before the full board for approval next week.

“Please take this first step,” said Campbell.

After the meeting, Coulter said he was glad Campbell said what he did about the referendum.

“I know they’re elected to be the voice of the constituents but in a matter like this, less than thirty people speaking for an entire county doesn’t seem just,” said Coulter.

This article was updated at 9:30 p.m. July 15, 2022 to correct an earlier version which included an incorrect title for Hannah Williams, an employee with the DeKalb County Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.

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