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Column: The Health Care Center debate, facts versus emotion

By Dan Kontos

Like the jail and courthouse, the Portage County Health Care Center has been an issue that has not, and will never, go away. We take positions that support services based on one of two approaches. Basically, we vie to perpetuate the Health Care Center based on our emotions, or we call for this part of government to come to an end based on certain facts.

Please understand, I am not personally attacking the supporters of continuing to operate a government run health care center. While I have made it very clear that I think that the time for this service has come and gone, I respect the opinions of those who disagree. I’d simply like to lay out a dispassionate explanation of my view.

The landscape is quite simple to outline. Portage County owns a government funded and run health care center. This facility is known for providing excellent service, and has received several awards in the years of its operation. All of the staff that I have ever known, from the Director on down, have been caring, excellent at their jobs, and very professional. The care at the Center has been first-rate.

It’s also a fact that the Health Care Center has tried all they can to reduce costs. For example, since 2020, the facility has reduced the number of staff by almost 33, and now employs less than 49 positions. In that same amount of time, the cost of running the facility has increased nearly $1.5 million.


However, in addition to the 1931 building being in need of major refurbishment or outright replacement, the facility as a system is hemorrhaging our tax dollars, as the landscape of healthcare in the United States has changed — a lot. The daily census at the Center has dropped from over 100 residents with significant waiting lists, to a current reported average of just 32 patients. The fact is that the system cannot sustain itself.

Don’t take my word for it. No one should be blindly trusted to convey all the truth, all of the time. Research for yourself. Our tax dollars account for almost $3.5 million of the annual $7.4 million it takes to run the facility.

From the very budget summary for 2023, one of the highlight notes clearly states, “The operating budget for the Health Care Center presents a structural deficit for the Health Care Center fund – meaning the current resources available for the operations of the skilled nursing facility do not meet the current expenses required to operate the facility.”

It goes on to say, “The current referendum to exceed the levy limit for Portage County in an amount up to $1.4 million expired in 2022.  This referendum was to assist the County in developing the next stages of planning for the Health Care Center. The Health Care Center committee approved a referendum study and public information campaign to formulate another referendum to the voting public in the April 2022 election.  On Tuesday, April 5, 2022, Portage County residents passed a new referendum to exceed the levy limit for health care center operations, including construction costs of a new facility, for up to $4.5 million for the next 20 years, expiring in 2042.”

In January of this year, we found out that the $4.5 million referendum wouldn’t be enough, and the shortfall would be an additional $1.7 million per year. I mean, c’mon, isn’t enough truly enough at this point?

The mission statement for the Health Care Center states it’s their aspirational goal to provide “cost-effective” services. According to HomeInstead.com, the average cost for home health care in Wisconsin is $5,720 per month, or $68,640 a year. If all three Portage County residents were paid for, it would cost just under $260,000, or less than $2.2 million if we were to also pay for everyone else, which we would obviously not do. It’s not their fault, it’s just a fact of life. Yes, that’s a bit of a simplification, but it gives you an idea.

On the horizon for taxpayers will probably be a new jail and sheriff’s office. The courthouse will either need to be completely rebuilt or replaced. Our deferred projects on our highways will catch up to us eventually. The list goes on. These are statutorily required services provided for the residents and visitors of Portage County. The Health Care Center is not.

Emotionally we want to keep the Health Care Center, which has done great work in the past, and can undoubtedly do quality work in the future, for the sake of the patients and staff. I get it.

Intellectually we see an aging facility, servicing less than three dozen people, which cannot sustain itself, necessarily burden the taxpayers for an additional $6.2 million annually, on top of the $7.4 million it spends now, without inflation. I just can’t get behind that.

At the end of November, the County’s Health Care Committee voted to delay the question of what to do until after a potential April additional funding referendum. I get it, yet again. Committees, tasked with legislative oversight, become attached to the departments and missions they oversee. It’s a fact of life. 

Committee members care. I mean really care. It happens everywhere. It’s human nature. Parks, Solid Waste, Aging and Disability, Public Safety, Library, and the list goes on. They become attached to the cause, and thankfully so, but lose some objectivity in the process.

Both the Finance and Space and Properties Committees will also consider the question of what to do. The obvious options are to go to another referendum or sell the facility and divest the taxpayers of the burden. 

If either committee approves the sale, it goes to the full County Board for consideration. Meanwhile, County Executive John Pavelski and his staff are free to explore possible sale options until the Board makes a decision.

You know where I stand. I urge the County to sell the Health Care Center, get that property back on the tax rolls, and give the taxpayers of Portage County a little relief. Not for the sake of emotion, but just the cold, hard facts.

So, with that, let’s meet in the opinion section to talk about all of it, boldly, honestly, unaffected by passions, and with a healthy respect for everyone. Until then, God bless us all.