Lake County may privatize Winchester House

Despite impassioned pleas from workers and other people, a divided Lake County Board on Tuesday decided to seek bids from private companies to run the Winchester House nursing home.

The county has owned and operated the Libertyville facility for decades. But over time, operating costs have increased while revenue and customer demand have decreased.

Tuesday’s 13-10 vote, which followed party lines, doesn’t mean the board necessarily will privatize Winchester House. Proponents, such as board Chairman David Stolman, insisted the bids will give the board more information that will help officials re-examine the financial plan for the facility.

“This vote … is to get educated,” the Buffalo Grove Republican said during a lengthy discussion in Waukegan.

North Chicago Democrat Audrey Nixon didn’t buy that explanation and led the charge against the vote.

“We know how the ball rolls,” Nixon said. “Once it gets started, it’s very hard to stop.”

All of the dozen or so audience members who addressed the commissioners before the vote implored them not to move forward.

Winchester House employee and union representative John Jenkins said his co-workers have dedicated their lives to the facility. He also said union representatives were not made aware of the plans to investigate privatization until recently, even though workers have been negotiating a new contract with the county since October 2010.

“This has never come across the table,” he said.

Waukegan resident Phil Kerrigan called pursuing privatization “a slash and burn approach” to financial management.

Former county board Chairman Bob Depke spoke against pursuing privatization, too. He said the county should close Winchester House and “get out of the nursing home business.”

Board members who oppose the move fear a private management company would result in lower salaries for workers and inferior care for residents. Waukegan Democrat Mary Ross Cunningham, who has worked in the nursing-home industry, voiced concerns about patient care at privately run centers.

“These are taxpayers,” Cunningham said. “They deserve the best of care.”

Other board members have said officials are legally bound to operate Winchester House within current financial limits and believe investigating private management is the responsible fiscal decision.

“We need to look for ways to cut costs,” Lake Zurich Republican Craig Taylor said.

Lincolnshire Republican Ann Maine talked about the phone calls she’s received from residents on fixed incomes who can’t afford to pay their property taxes. Increasing their tax burden to further fund Winchester House would be unfair to those people, Maine said.

County officials have said Winchester House’s 192 employees wouldn’t necessarily lose their jobs if a private company takes over. The company likely would interview current employees for jobs.

A firm would not be required to hire the county’s workers, however.

If the board eventually turns over Winchester House to a private firm, the county board would retain oversight of the company, County Administrator Barry Burton said.

A few years ago, the county board decided to tear down Winchester House and build a smaller and more specialized center nearby, but those plans have been on hold.

During Tuesday’s debate, Ingleside Republican Bonnie Thomson Carter said the board should put a referendum on a future ballot that would ask residents to decide if taxes should be increased to pay for Winchester House’s construction and operation.