County residents approve borrowing for new health care center

By Brandi Makuski

Portage Co. residents have approved a referendum question that would allow an increase in tax levy to pay for a new county health care center.

Tuesday’s referendum was approved by a vote of 9,979 to 6,848. The final tally was reported to the county clerk’s office at 1:06 a.m. on Wednesday, April 6.

The vote gives county leaders permission to borrow “up to $4.5 million” annually for a period of 20 years, beginning in 2023, to construct a new center.

Among the aging facility’s problems are outdated heating and electrical systems that don’t always work properly, and no central air, among other issues.

Meleesa Johnson, who represents the county’s 3rd District, and District 5 in Stevens Point, said the county will do “everything it can” to be fiscally responsible and avoid borrowing the entire amount. Johnson also currently chairs the county’s health care center committee.

It’s the second time county residents have approved borrowing for the facility. In 2018, voters approved borrowing an additional $1.4 million annually for four years to keep the center running until the county could devise a long-term plan for the 70-bed facility that’s nearly a century old.

County Executive Chris Holman said the county levied only about $1 million a year for the first two years, followed by two years of the full amount, to keep the facility’s doors open.

The health care center is not a state-mandated service and typically has operated at a loss, Holman said, due to low reimbursement rates of Medicaid and Medicare in the state. According to county records, only about 23 percent of the facility’s patients are private-pay, and the rest rely on Medicare and Medicaid.

Next, the county will hire a contractor to complete the final design for a $20 million, 57,000-square-foot facility. Residents will be transitioned to other area health care facilities while the current center at 825 Whiting Ave. is razed.

In its place, a 40-bed facility would be built, with modern physical and occupational therapy rooms, dining areas, laundry facilities, a chapel, and activity/small group meeting spaces. Eight of those beds will be placed in a separate Community-Based Residental Facility (CBRF), while 32 will be in the new Skilled Nursing Facility. Construction could begin as soon as next year.

Marcia McDonald, director of the health care center, said none of the beds are earmarked for Portage Co. residents. It’s strictly a first-come, first-served basis.

“We never have made a differentiation—state regulations require equal assessment of all referrals,” McDonald said, adding an updated facility would improve the center’s ability to attract private-pay patients, and with it, the ability to sustain itself.

With the approved referendum, property owners can expect a tax increase of about $67 per $100,000 of assessed value.