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What's next? Winnebago County board looks ahead after the 'keep nursing home' referendum

Matthias Zomer

The Winnebago County run nursing home received a boost of support in the June primary when a majority of residents voted in favor of keeping it. Now County board members consider its future and the next steps to safeguard it from another budget mess.

Winnebago County board member John Butitta said the public’s support for River Bluff Nursing Home in the referendum assures the board the community will stand behind them as they consider raising the tax levy.

“People that would not vote for a property tax increase, normally, now have the political cover to vote yes, because of the results of the referendum,” Buttita said.

The board will vote on an increase in property tax in August. The new revenue would help put the nursing home on solid financial footing and take a strain off the county’s budget.

The county covered the nursing home’s deficits for several years. Those stem from the federal and state cuts to Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements, COVID, and low enrollment numbers.

Another challenge facing the county is staffing shortages. When there are shortages, the nursing home hires nurses from outside agencies, significantly increasing the labor costs.

Angie Goral, a board member and chair of the home’s advisory committee, said, "These nurses, and our CNAs deserve more pay than what they're getting."

Goral added, "We have lost a lot of our people, because of the fact they can go someplace else and get you know, a dollar more an hour, where we haven't had a budget that we could do that with them.”

She said the nursing home does have a program funding the education for CNAs who want to become nurses, but more needs to be done to attract people to the profession.

Several board members said putting the county home in a stable fiscal position is only the first step in resolving its long-term issues. They will have to plan ahead to avoid any budget surprises in the years to come.

Jaime Salgado, the county board’s finance committee chair, said, "Let's find the strategies for the future and be proactive.

"We know that labor is an issue, we know that our payer mix, our receivable with Medicaid and Medicare payments, those are issues that we need to resolve and figure out better strategies to do that. And I think, thinking long-term will actually provide some benefit.”

Butitta wants the board to adopt a new approach in the management of the nursing home, such as creating a board of directors.

He says the county administrator is responsible for overseeing the home, with guidance from the advisory board, but it’s not enough.

“We're not getting any, any strategic guidance, or planning or oversight at all," he said. "Once we get a board installed, and we start setting some business metrics, and we get a good operating, and we get good leadership out there. And the revenue streams come back from the fee side, not the tax side. I think we can turn things around.”

While debate about the direction of the nursing home will continue, Salgado said the county's commitment to it is strong.

“River Bluff at this point in time, it's not going anywhere," Salgado said. "We're not closing we're not selling it, we are in the decision of moving it forward.”

The 20-member board will review the first draft of a county budget later this month and work until the end of the summer to complete it.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.