Sullivan County nursing home impasse continues

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/16/2021 9:45:04 PM
Modified: 6/16/2021 9:45:11 PM

UNITY — The future of a proposed $54 million renovation of the Sullivan County nursing home remains uncertain following a special meeting between county commissioners and the county delegation.

County officials took pains during the meeting Tuesday evening to explain to the lawmakers from the county, who vote on the budget and would also have to approve the renovation, why trimming the proposed project wouldn’t result in significant savings but would create delays that could drive up construction costs further.

“We’ve presented other options,” Mary Bourque, the county’s director of facilities and operations, said during the meeting, which was held via Zoom and in person at the Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center in Claremont.

The alternatives are either too expensive or don’t serve the county’s needs, Bourque added.

“This is what works,” she said of the renovation plan.

The project, which would upgrade the 156-bed facility’s aging infrastructure, has been on hold since the county delegation’s April 26 meeting at which no vote was taken because delegates couldn’t reach consensus. The delegation appears torn on how best to meet the needs of the nursing home without a steep increase in property taxes.

As proposed, the $54 million renovation of the facility, which sits next to the county jail in Unity, would include gutting the nursing home’s Stearns building, making aesthetic improvements to the MacConnell building and demolishing the Sanders building to clear space for an 82,000-square-foot addition. The Sanders building was constructed in 1931, Stearns in 1975 and MacConnell in 1997.

The delegation rejected the proposal last fall after cost estimates came back 20% higher than county officials had expected. At that time, the delegation asked county employees to explore the idea of building a new facility either on-site or elsewhere. But county employees reported to the delegation this winter that a new facility could cost as much as $80 million and if sited somewhere other than the county complex in Unity would also cost about $1 million more annually to operate.

The project’s continued delay has left commissioners and employees frustrated.

“I think the time spent on this project is ample enough,” said George Hebert, chairman of the board of commissioners, during Tuesday’s meeting. “I really would not like to entertain any more questions on what we can do (or) how we can do it better. This is the time to make a decision on this project.”

Some members of the delegation still appear to be put off by the sticker price. As proposed, the county would take out a bond for $41 million; use $5 million from a capital reserve fund; and $8 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Among those with concerns about cost is state Rep. John Cloutier, D-Claremont, who chairs the delegation. He said Wednesday that the delegation might take up the nursing home renovation at its next meeting on June 29, when it expects to vote on the county budget.

The two combined would be a “big hit on property taxpayers starting this year, but going down the road,” he said, noting that if the $34.6 million county budget is approved as proposed that also would drive up taxes nearly 10%. Proposed spending would increase by only about 3%, but the county would not be able to use as much in rainy days funds as it has in the past.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Bourque outlined some options for trimming the size of the nursing home renovation, including reducing the number of beds in the facility, delaying the aesthetic refresh to MacConnell or cutting “soft costs” for things like new furniture.

But, she said, all of these options have downsides. Reducing the number of beds, for example, would reduce the number of residents the nursing home could hold and affect its profitability down the road, she said.

“We are recommending that we move forward with the current plan immediately,” Bourque said. There are “some things looming out in the future as possible risks that make it better to move forward now.”

While Cloutier said he heard the commissioners and employees say that further delays for the project, which has been in the works for three years, would take more time and money, he’d still like to see a lower price tag. Ideally, Cloutier said, he’d like to see at least another $10 million in federal money for the project. He said he’s heard from constituents that between school and municipal expenses, property taxes are “high enough already.”

“We’ve got some tough decisions,” he said.

Some delegates are sold on the project, however.

Rep. Judy Aron, R-South Acworth, said during Tuesday’s meeting that she wants to move forward.

“I have no question in my mind that the project in front of us is the project that we need to do,” she said. “The time is now. Our residents are waiting. The employees are waiting. I have every question answered. I have no reservations at all.”

The project requires a two-thirds vote, or nine if all 13 members of the delegation are present, to proceed.

In other Sullivan County nursing home news, it exited its second COVID-19 outbreak last Friday, following two weeks without any new cases, said Ted Purdy, the facility’s administrator, in a Wednesday message to families. As a result, small group activities, communal dining and social visits have resumed.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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