Officials seek compromise to keep project on track while pinning down cost
A multi-million-dollar plan to upgrade Ozaukee County’s Lasata Senior Living Campus in Cedarburg, which just last month appeared to have significant support, is now dividing a fractured County Board.
Scrambling to find a way to move the project forward while keeping it politically viable, members of the Executive Committee decided last week to scrap plans to call for a vote next month on borrowing $3 million for the first phase of the improvements for fear it would endanger the entire project.
Instead, in a nod to supervisors who have questioned the planning for the project, the committee agreed to draft a resolution seeking money to hire a project manager or architectural firm to draft detailed designs and determine costs for a community-based residential facility (CBRF) for the frail elderly and those with dementia.
The second and more costly phase of the project — renovating the antiquated Lasata Care Center nursing home at an estimated cost of $7 million — would be considered separately at a later date after further analysis.
The compromise was a bitter pill to swallow for supervisors who have spent more than a year studying and planning the project.
“In October 2012 we headed down this road,” said Supr. Cynthia Bock of Mequon, a member of the Executive Committee and chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, which oversees Lasata Senior Living Campus. “It’s now mid-November, and this is the first I’ve heard someone say you’ll have to have a detailed design plan before moving forward. At the 11th hour they say we need a detailed plan.”
County Board Chairman Lee Schlenvogt, chairman of the Executive Committee, urged members not to risk the project by forcing a vote on the borrowing next month. Instead, he said, the committee should recommend hiring a firm to provide detailed specifications and costs so the board can vote on borrowing in February or March.
“There’s enough opposition on the board now that you won’t get the votes to get your bonding,” Schlenvogt said.
Borrowing resolutions require the support of three-quarters of the board members, or 20 of the 26 supervisors.
“We need to get the board behind this, and we need to move forward with it,” Schlenvogt said.
Supr. Dan Becker of Port Washington, also a member of the committee, agreed.
“I’m comfortable voting on a $3 million bonding resolution in December and moving forward, but I don’t want to put that resolution on the agenda and watch it go down in flames,” he said.
But whether the committee’s compromise is enough to keep the project on track remains to be seen. Supr. Robert Brooks of Saukville, who became a lightning rod for criticism from some supervisors when he questioned the process earlier this month, said the Executive Committee’s plan is less than ideal.
The county, Brooks said, should have detailed plans for both phases of the project before voting on funding for the CBRF. Some committee members oppose that approach for fear it will delay the project.
“I know some supervisors are looking to me to say whether we’re going to bite the bullet on this one and accept the compromise, although I wouldn’t call it much of a compromise, or make our stand,” Brooks said in an interview Tuesday. “We clearly have enough votes to do nothing and bring this to a standstill. That’s not the right thing to do, but neither is charging blindly ahead.”
A resolution seeking funding for a project manager is to be considered by the Executive and Health and Human Services committees on Wednesday, Dec. 4. The County Board would vote on it later that day. County officials estimated the cost of the hiring the firm to be between $100,000 and $300,000.
Adding tension to the debate is a growing sense of distrust among supervisors.
Brooks and other supervisors who agree with his approach say they favor the proposed Lasata campus improvements but argue it would be irresponsible to borrow money for the project when the cost of the new facility and nursing home renovations are not yet known. The size and scope of the project is particularly important because revenue generated by the CBRF, not the tax levy, must be sufficient to cover the debt, Brooks said.
“Everything we’re doing is intended to keep the campus viable,” Brooks said. “Let’s not ruin that now by rushing into this, because if the campus starts losing money, that’s when people are going to start talking about selling the nursing home and getting out of the business all together.”
But supervisors on the other side of the aisle are irritated by the fact Brooks voiced concerns about the process a month before the board was to vote on funding and didn’t attend last week’s meeting to discuss a compromise. They accuse him and others who are like-minded of trying to scuttle the project under the auspices of fiscal responsibility.
“I see these delays as game-changing tactics,” Supr. Nancy Szatkowski, a member of the committee, said. “These people say, ‘Yeah, we want this. We support this.’ I don’t believe that.
“If you want to delay and stall, just ask the committee to do a little more, another study, to delay this until there’s a new board and then go with a different agenda.”
All supervisors are up for election in April.
Officials have said it is possible that both approaches would allow construction of a CBRF to begin next fall, but the issue for some supervisors is the timing of the vote. Under the committee’s plan, CBRF designs would be completed in time for a vote on borrowing before the April election, and Bock said she will insist the board commit to funding the second phase of the project at that time.
“I’m going to insist that we take a vote of commitment, that we’re in this business and we’re staying in this business,” she said. “I can’t have all these people at Lasata hanging in limbo.”
But if the county opts to wait until designs for both the CBRF and nursing home renovations are complete, the vote would be delayed until after the election.
Supervisors involved in the planning for the Lasata improvements say the county has already done its due diligence starting with a scaled back plan that was derived from a market study commissioned by the county last year.
That study recommended replacing the nursing home with a new facility and building a CBRF at a cost of $29.3 million.
The Health and Human Services Committee downsized that plan, opting instead to recommend a $3 million, 24-unit CBRF that is expected to be profitable shortly after it opens and making $7 million of improvements to the nursing home.
The renovations, which would address air handling systems that do not comply with state codes and include other upgrades, are the wild card. Officials said the cost of the project won’t be known until the state approves the plans.
The plan is seen as an essential step toward keeping the senior campus, which in addition to the nursing home includes the Lasata Heights apartment complex and recently completed Lasata Crossings assisted-living facility, viable, both financially and in terms of the services it offers.
Recently raised concerns about the details of the plan have prompted supporters to question whether some supervisors are intent on torpedoing the project because they don’t believe the county should run a nursing home.
“People have forgotten we’re a safety net for a lot of people who can’t afford Newcastle,” Szatkowski said, referring to the upscale senior living campus in Mequon.
But Brooks, who noted that as county board chairman he worked to ensure the Lasata campus remained viable, said the personal attacks that have entered the debate only threaten to delay and undermine the project.
“I was at a meeting where (county administrator) Tom Meaux asked for guidance,” Brooks said. “I gave some and people agreed with me, and all of a sudden, I’m the anti-Christ because I suggested we do our research first.
“If I’m being accused of trying to kill this, that’s crazy and, quite frankly, insulting.”