CHARLESTOWN — Sullivan County administrators fielded questions about its proposed $35 million renovation of the county nursing home last night in Charlestown. Directors say the project will significantly improve the facility’s energy and operating efficiency and align residential spaces with modern standards.
Sullivan County Manager Derek Ferland, Health Care Administrator Ted Purdy and Facility & Operation Director Mary Bourque presented their proposal to selectmen and residents at the beginning of Charlestown’s regular selectboard meeting.
The 156-bed facility is comprised of three building sections: the original Sanders building, built in 1931; the Stearns, built in 1970; and the McConnell wing, built in 1997.
The Sanders and Stearns buildings in particular are not designed to meet modern regulations or residential expectations of today’s seniors or families, according to Bourque. Sanders, which the county closed, did not have bathrooms connected directly to the residents’ rooms. Additionally, staff served the residents meals in their rooms because there was no dining room. In most rooms, four residents per ward share a single bathroom and the showers are located down the hall. While Stearns has a dining room, there is an overall lack of common space for families to visit with residents.
The county’s project would replace the Sanders building with a more energy efficient building that would expand the overall facility space to incorporate more family meeting areas. The design would also redistribute nurse workstations to allow staff to stay closer to their patients, reduce the resident-to-bathroom ration from 4:1 to 2:1, and redesign the facility entry to create more community space and offices for the county commissioners.
Charlestown residents asked about how the county would fund the project, the impact on residents during the construction period and whether the design would carry enough capacity for the county’s long term population needs.
The team plans to hold similar meetings in five other communities during the next two months, including the Claremont City Council on Wednesday, Nov. 13 and the Sunapee Selectboard on Nov. 18. Meetings in Plainfield, Acworth and Newport are tentatively scheduled for December.
Ferland said that the county expects to cover the project’s payment in annual installments of about $2 million over a 25-year period, which would include a projected interest rate of 3%.
In addition to the $35 million for construction, the county will also fund $1.57 million for the project design.
A county bond that expires in January 2020 will free up $683,000 for the 2021 fiscal year and an annual revenue share of $453,000 from the state to offset project costs. The county also received $2.8 million in proshare funds from the state in 2018 and 2019, which the county has put into its capital reserves. Ferland said that the county could potentially use up to $3.5 million from its $4 million capital reserve funds toward the project, according to Ferland.
The county would probably not use much, if any, money from its fund balance, which has been drawn down over the years to suppress the county tax rate, according to Ferland. The balance had once been at $6 million, but is currently at $3.3 million. Ferland said the county needs to keep that balance at or above $3 million.
The administrators said the county intends to execute the construction without a need to displace residents from the facility. Purdy explained that all residents currently live in Stearns and McConnell. The replacement of Sanders will not increase the facility’s residential capacity, but expand the total facility space.
“We’re trying to do this in a way that doesn’t disrupt the residents’ quality of life is preserved and minimize the number of moves,” Ferland said. “But there will be some moves into the new part of the building so that we maintain our census near or at the current number.”
Ferland said that the county wants to avoid the “hard lessons” experienced in Rockingham County, which recently completed a similar project. Rockingham, however, had to move too many residents from the facility during the 18- to 20-month construction period, resulting in it falling below minimum occupancy and suffering significant revenue losses.
Purdy also said that their studies found the facility’s maximum capacity of 156 to be sufficient to meet the county’s needs for the next 50 years and beyond. Though they anticipate an increase in the number of senior citizens over the next 10 to 20 years, Purdy believes that spike will be more of a temporary “blip.” As the Boomer population declines, so will the number of seniors.
Ferland also noted that modern technology and services enables many seniors to receive care within their own homes. While the state’s aging population might have other impacts, it does not necessitate that residential facilities will be overrun.
According to Ferland, these community meetings aim to inform local officials about the proposal, per request of the county delegates at a meeting on Aug. 29. The delegates gave preliminary approval to the county’s recommended design plan, but asked that the county to bring the proposal to as many of Sullivan’s 15 communities as possible before the delegates cast their final vote for approval in January.