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Sullivan County forms working group to cut cost of nursing home renovation

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/28/2021 3:46:53 PM
Modified: 7/28/2021 4:01:40 PM

UNITY — The Sullivan County delegation has tasked a five-person working group with cutting the cost of a proposed renovation to the county’s aging nursing home to about $35 million.

Previous estimates for the project, which would upgrade the infrastructure of the 156-bed facility in Unity, put the price tag at $54 million, but members of the delegation voiced hopes at a meeting on Tuesday that construction costs may be on the decline at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the county might find alternative funding sources to reduce the tax burden on county residents.

State Rep. Gary Merchant, D-Claremont, who proposed the original motion to create the working group, said he didn’t want to “kick the can down the road again” during Tuesday’s meeting, which was held via Zoom and in person at the Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center in Claremont.

The delegation first balked at the cost for the project, which has been under development for several years, last fall and then again this spring amid surging costs of construction due to the pandemic, as well as new requirements for nursing homes. The lawmakers said Tuesday that they hoped to find a path forward to renovate the nursing home, but sought to do so at a cost they felt county taxpayers could afford.

“I think that $54 million or anything in that ballpark is entirely too much for a project,” said state Rep. Walter Spilsbury, R-Charlestown.

As proposed, the project 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.

In addition to keeping costs at about $35 million, the working group, which delegates approved in a vote of 10-1, is also slated to explore funding opportunities such as federal loan programs and state bonds, as well as limitations or requirements associated with directing federal funds to the project, such as those from the American Rescue Plan Act or congressional earmarks.

The chair of the delegation, state Rep. John Cloutier, D-Claremont, is tasked with selecting two Democratic and two Republican members of the delegation, as well as one county commissioner to form the group. Cloutier, on Wednesday, said he expected to name the members of the group by Friday. The group is to submit a report, including a budget for the project, to the full delegation by Sept. 30.

In other voting during the meeting, the delegation approved putting $100,000 in funds the county received through the American Rescue Plan Act toward incentives to encourage more county employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The incentives may come in the form of direct payments to vaccine-hesitant employees or in the form of a lottery, said County Commissioner Bennie Nelson, R-Newport.

Just 54% of Sullivan County residents have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine so far, well below the statewide average of about 65%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A worker at Sullivan County nursing home tested positive for COVID-19 on July 19. Though subsequent testing revealed no other cases at the facility, social visits, outings and admissions on the facility’s MacConnell unit have been suspended until Aug. 1, according to a Facebook post from April Bartley, the nursing home’s director of nursing. The facility has had two outbreaks during the pandemic; the first of which included 180 cases and five deaths.

County Manager Derek Ferland, during Tuesday’s meeting, estimated that as many as 75% of county employees have thus far been vaccinated, but said, “We’d like it to be higher. This is the carrot as opposed to the stick. I don’t think anybody wants to make it mandatory.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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