No to referendum, yes to $8.3M sale: DeKalb County Board votes in tense meeting on nursing center

The board voted against a sale to Saba Healthcare before saying yes to Illuminate HC

The DeKalb County Board voted to approve a sale of the struggling DeKalb County Rehabilitation and Nursing Center to Evanston-based Illuminate HC during a tense meeting Wednesday, July 20, 2022. The board also voted down a Nov. 8 ballot referendum in a split 11-11 vote which would have asked residents to weigh in on a tax levy to support the center.

SYCAMORE – A woman’s voice rang out Wednesday, “Shame on you,” during a tense meeting as the DeKalb County Board voted to push forward an $8.3 million sale of its struggling nursing home to a private Evanston-based buyer.

And for the second time in four months, the board voted down a ballot referendum in an 11-11 split vote, which would have asked voters if they support a property tax to help the DeKalb County Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.

The center – which has been the subject of more than a year of fiscal debate – faces more than $7 million in debt due to what county officials have alleged was mismanagement, delinquent billing and ailing resident numbers.

The failed referendum vote fell largely along political party lines. All present Democrats voted for the referendum, joined by Republicans Patrick Deutsch and Jerry Osland. The remaining 11 Republicans opposed it, while two Democrats – Kiara Jones and Michelle Pickett – were absent.

Chuck Simpson, a 33-year employee of the nursing center, said he was very upset by the board’s decision to sell the nursing home the county has owned for 169 years. Simpson also serves as vice president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees No. 3537, the union that represents the county center’s employees.

“It’s going to be a long day trying to explain it to the residents tomorrow that it’s no longer going to be a county facility,” said Simpson, who said he expects to see tears from coworkers Thursday at work. “A private nursing home is just not your home.”

The letter of intent put forward by Evanston-based Illuminate HC was approved by the County Board in a 17-5 vote for $8,300,100, an upgrade from an initial $8.1 million offer made in early June. DeKalb County Administrator Brian Gregory said the amended Illuminate offer came recently, topping a competing offer of $8.3 million made by Skokie-based Saba Healthcare on June 15.

The County Board voted, 19-3, to oppose the Saba offer, with only board members Karen Cribben (District 11), Patrick Deutsch (District 3) and Roy Plote (District 11) in support.

A sale to Illuminate HC still isn’t final however, despite the vote that required only a two-thirds majority to move forward. According to the letter of intent, the sale is contingent on a 45-day due diligence period that will include inspections of nursing center, environmental and structural assessments. The purchase letter also includes a $20,000 nonrefundable deposit that must be paid to the county within three days from the time the sale is initiated.

The County Board has flip flopped on a nursing center referendum before. 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 that authorized the county government to levy taxes for the nursing home annually for 30 years. That tax was never levied, documents show.

Residents and nursing center staff pleaded with the board to put the center’s future in the hands of DeKalb County voters, and to oppose a sale. Some argued a sale would mean less options for longterm care for area residents, since the publicly-owned rehabilitation and nursing center doesn’t turn away anyone based on income levels and need.

Before the votes, Vincent Kerket said he had to put his wife into a private nursing home and asked the board to compare the conditions of a private nursing home to a publicly run facility. It’s a concern expressed in several previous board meetings as county officials weighed financial constraints with fears brought forward by center employees worried about patient quality care and staff benefits.

“Are you into torture? Because that’s what happens,” said Kerket, speaking about private nursing homes, which he alleged have left his wife to endure mistreatment.

The DeKalb County Rehab and Nursing Center, a county owned facility, is more than $7 million in debt due to delinquent billing, falling resident numbers and what officials have said was unrealized mismanagement. The issues surrounding the operation of the rehab and nursing home came to light in March 2021 when Gregory, who was hired that month, was informed the facility was unable to make payroll.

“Everyone reminds me you voted this down months ago,” board member Roy Plote said of the referendum before the vote.

Plote said his constituents had asked him why the referendum was up for board consideration again. He said people in his area, the southern part of the county, frequently go to nursing homes in Sandwich.

Board member Scott Campbell addressed Plote’s comments by saying voters in Plote’s jurisdiction could still use their voice by voting in the referendum.

Some argued in support of several options.

“It makes sense to approve the referendum even if we approve the sale,” Board Vice Chairwoman Suzanne Willis said. “The sale could fall through.”

During the board’s discussion Rukisha Crawford asked how much the county’s nursing home is worth.

“I think it’s only worth what you can get for it,” said DeKalb County Board Chairman John Frieders, who voted no on the referendum, no to a Saba Healthcare sale and yes to Illuminate HC.

This article has been updated to correct an earlier headline which stated an incorrect number for the purchase offer accepted by the DeKalb County Board Wednesday.

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