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Handling With Care

Grafton County Nursing Home to Address Fire Code Problem

Steve Klitgord, of Wayland, Mass., wheels his mother, June Klitgord, of Haverhill, N.H., into the Grafton County Nursing Home in Haverhill on May 23, 2014. Klitgord is a resident of the nursing home, and was just returning after staying in her own home for a short time. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Steve Klitgord, of Wayland, Mass., wheels his mother, June Klitgord, of Haverhill, N.H., into the Grafton County Nursing Home in Haverhill on May 23, 2014. Klitgord is a resident of the nursing home, and was just returning after staying in her own home for a short time. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

North Haverhill — Grafton County commissioners have recommended a fiscal year 2015 operating budget of almost $39 million, but also have some unexpected fire-code issues at the county nursing home that need to be addressed.

County officials earlier this spring learned that a section of the nursing home that was built in 1969 includes some “life-safety smoke and fire partition issues,” according to county Executive Director Julie Clough.

As part of a state-mandated life-safety review that was looking into fire caulking, officials discovered there were some unexpected chases — or conduits — within walls that weren’t properly compartmentalized, and which could allow smoke and fire to spread quickly.

As a result, county officials who were already considering renovating what are now considered undersized bathrooms at the 45-year-old building are now proposing to undertake an estimated $800,000 upgrade and renovation to address the various problems.

The two-building nursing home has 135 beds, with 75 residents in the 1969 building and the remainder living in an adjoining building completed in 2003.

Under a plan the county has proposed to the state Department of Health and Human Services, 31 residents would be moved temporarily from the older building to the second floor of the county administrative building, which currently houses county offices but previously served as the county nursing home.

The office space would be temporarily moved to the basement.

All three buildings are attached, running alongside Route 10 at the county complex in North Haverhill, and Clough noted that they are all equipped with sprinkler systems.

“We don’t think there is any immediate danger. It’s just something we have identified as a deficiency that we now need to go in and fix,” she said.

Members of the county delegation recently learned of the problem, and want to learn more about the possible project.

State Rep. Andy White, a Lebanon Democrat and chairman of the delegation, said the deficiencies in the fire code are a “concern” and “need to be addressed,” but said that Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital had similar problems it addressed over a 10-year time period.

“Many buildings that were built like this in the 1960s and 1970s, before we had really great fire codes, have existed like this for decades,” said White, a Lebanon firefighter. “They are not inconsequential — I don’t want to sound like I am minimizing it, but it’s not like not having a fire alarm system, or a sprinkler system that doesn’t work.”

State Rep. George Sykes, who served as Lebanon’s deputy fire chief and fire prevention officer, said the sprinkler system in the building would likely put out a fire, but that the chases that need to be addressed could allow smoke to spread.

“It’s not an uncommon code violation for a building of that age. It’s a very technical methodology to handle these things properly,” said Sykes, a Lebanon Democrat.

Asked what he would tell families of nursing home patients about the code deficiencies, Sykes said that while they need to be fixed, “I would say to them that the building is fully sprinklered, plus with the automatic fire alarm, it’s already leagues ahead of most buildings in terms of life safety.”

State Fire Marshal J. William Degnan said he had been notified by Health and Human Services officials about the issue.

“My only comment to them was to make sure that the location they are moving into was suited for the residents that were being moved there to ensure that their life safety is being take care of, and that they are in a safe location,” said Degnan, who will continue to monitor the situation.

State Rep. Edmond Gionet, R-Lincoln, said he wants to get a clearer picture of the extent of the problem, and what needs to be done to rectify it, given the budget implications.

The estimated $800,000 project would also pay for a previously planned remodeling to showers in the older building, which are “very small and maze-like,” Nursing Home Administrator Craig Labore told commissioners during a May 16 meeting, according to minutes of the session.

County officials said many residents are now far heavier than the typical population in 1969, making it “very difficult for staff to maneuver in and out of these small spaces using much larger equipment which the shower space wasn’t designed for,” according to the minutes.

The commissioners propose to pay for the renovations — which would start in October and take up to six months to complete — through a five-year bond, meaning there would be no immediate tax impact in the fiscal year 2015 budget.

But White, noting that the county has recently bonded for a biomass project and new county jail, said he is reluctant to take on what could be close to $1 million in new debt.

“It’s a high-enough priority we should find the money and do it right away,” White said of the life-safety issues. “The other stuff, we’ll see.”

“We’re going to have to set some priorities,” Gionet said. “If at any point in time our clientele is in jeopardy, I certainly think they come first.”

County Budget Down 2.7 Percent

The proposed $38.99 million budget itself represents a 2.7 percent increase in spending over the current fiscal year, with the amount to be raised in taxes increasing by almost 3.4 percent.

The spending plan, which must be approved by the full delegation, includes $186,000 for new positions, including a new part-time assistant county prosecutor and a second full-time victim witness coordinator in the county attorney’s office, which has seen a growing caseload. Any proposed bond would also have to pass muster with the delegation.

The budget would also make a current administrative assistant position there part-time and add a new full-time position for an alternative sentencing director, who would oversee a merged program including the county drug court, mental health court and juvenile diversion.

Clough noted that another part of the county budget is taking a major hit because of state requirements that counties cover costs for long-term care and community-based care services for the elderly who are eligible.

Grafton County already pays $6.7 million for such services — on top of nursing home costs — and the state mandate is expected to increase by another $287,282, she said.

Clough said such mandates “absolutely” are going to get more burdensome as the county’s population continues to age.

In 2012, 16.8 percent of Grafton County residents were 65 or over, compared with 14.7 percent in New Hampshire and 13.7 percent throughout the country, according to the U.S. Census.

A public hearing on the commissioners’ budget recommendation is slated for Monday, June 2, at 6 p.m. in the county administration building, with lawmakers expected to work on, and approve, a budget later that month.

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.