Column: Can we please finally reach a long-term plan on the health care center?

By Dan Kontos

Image, if you will, 25 of your neighbors ambling down the road together, talking and strolling in a group down the middle of the road. They then come to a smaller cylindrical object lying in the street. They rear back their collective foot and punt this object further ahead in the roadway. 

They resume their walk until they encounter this cylinder again. Once more they boot it further ahead. Over and over, they continue to kick the can down the road. 

Those 25 neighbors are, collectively, the Portage County Board of Supervisors. While fairly adept at keeping the county ship of state upright and operating, they are not very good at long-range planning and visionary action.

Recently, County Executive Chris Holman announced a “referendum study” seeking public input ahead of another possible vote in April to raise the funds needed to keep the county’s health care facility afloat. The survey is short, simple, and far from insightful for the authors.

In 2018, the County held a similar referendum asking to exceed the levy cap in order to fund the financially hemorrhaging facility. The ask was that the taxpayers foot a stop-gap measure to fund the annual shortfall while the County Board was given enough time to solve this fiscal dilemma. 

Now four years later, we still have no solution. With their budget backs against the wall, the taxpayers are once again going to be asked to fund an unworkable model. No doubt the services offered there are very important to some of the most vulnerable citizens in the County, but the question really is what is the optimal way to deliver these services.

There is no doubt that something needs to be done. Whether it’s a replacement of the current facility, which was built in 1931, or a move to disengage completely from this non-mandatory county service and allow the private sector to fill the gap or find some hybrid partnership, something needs to be done. 

Inaction is not an acceptable course of action. With budget shortfalls of over $1M every year, and multiples of that in needed capital budget investments, the time has come. Not to mention that the facility itself is no longer up to the challenge of similar facilities. Blame whatever you wish, but action is called for, and soon.

Obviously, the County Health Care Center Committee has not moved the needle on this issue in four years, and by extension, neither has the County Board. Will this be merely another stopgap kicking of the preverbal can down the road, or are they going to roll up our sleeves and actually get something done?

Former County Executive Patty Dreier tried and failed to develop a universally acceptable solution in 2014 after encountering both public and Board resistance to several options that she proposed. Finally, she settled on attempting to force the issue by putting the Health Care Center budget on the block. 

As a result, rather than directly addressing the issue, the voters were asked for some breathing room so a solution could be developed. With the pressure off for the moment—and $1.4 million dollars a year later—we still have no solution. Perhaps this time it will be different; perhaps. You know what they say about, fool me once…

The issue is that we are returning to another referendum. While legally necessary to exceed the County’s levy cap, the underlying strategy of going to the electorate to obtain guidance on a very complex issue is fundamentally unfair to them. 

It doesn’t matter what the question, public referenda, even non-binding ones, are fraught with problems. The public cannot be reasonably be expected to make an informed decision on a matter that requires study and a bit of expertise. Even for those who bristle at the idea that they are incapable of making an intelligent choice, honestly, they rarely put in the time.

The public turns out for a question they know very little about. Decisions are made without all of the background information, often based on pre-developed outcomes, and interlaced with emotion. This exercise in democracy is not the ideal way to work through complex issues – not in the slightest.

Despite the best efforts of local journalism, where you can still find some, an article or two cannot begin to properly and educate a citizenry that has their own lives to live, and their own complex situations to attend to. That is why we live under a republican form of government where we elect people to study these issues and make the best decisions regarding them.

By the way, if you have not read the recent pieces by contributors Lisa Pett and Steve Hill on local journalism, you ought to. They are really quite good at explaining the need to be educated on local matters and how the few remaining sources of local news are vital to our community.

So please, I ask my fellow citizens who sit on the County Board, enough already. Let’s get to work on finding long-term solutions. Whether it’s the crumbling courthouse, the unsafe jail, the aging health care center, or any of the other cans we have collectively kicked down the road, let’s get to work. The decisions are hard, the work is abundant, and the outcomes will never be universally celebrated. That’s the job; deal with it.

So, with that, let’s meet in the opinion section to talk about all of it, boldly, unafraid, and with a healthy respect for each other. Until then, God bless.

Dan Kontos is a paid columnist for the Metro Wire. He chooses his own topics and his opinions do not necessarily represent the staff of the Metro Wire. He lives with his family in Whiting. 

Interested in becoming a columnist for the Metro Wire? Email [email protected]

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