EBENSBURG - Cambria County's longtime nursing home is going up for sale.
After years of struggles, millions in recent losses and what is shaping up as another year of red ink despite cuts, Cambria's commissioners moved Thursday to engage a nationally known group to help Laurel Crest Rehabilitation & Special Care Center market the home.
Their agreement with Chicago-based real estate group Marcus & Millichap to field offers is the first step in a process they hope will turn the facility over to a private buyer by year's end.
"This is a gut-wrenching process for the commissioners and I'm sure, an emotionally charged one for residents and workers," President Commissioner P.J. Stevens said Thursday. "But we've come to a crossroads where we find our options very limited."
The commissioners broke the news after meeting with Laurel Crest staff Thursday. It comes at a time when the home has lost more than $1.2 million in the first five months of 2009 despite a series of commissioner-driven moves late last year to stop losses, including dozens of layoffs and other cuts.
According to Chief Clerk Michael Gelles, the home has lost an estimated $9.2 million over the past 2 years - a fact that forced the county to borrow $6 million last year to cover its bills and losses and meant increases on taxpayers for 2009.
A closer look
According to 2007 and 2008 audits and the Cambria County Chief Clerk's Office, recent losses at Laurel Crest include:
2007: $3.5 million
2008: $4.5 million
2009: $1.24 million (through May)
"Our major concern is residents' well-being and that future Cambria County residents will have accessibility to long-term care services in the future," Stevens told about a dozen Laurel Crest staffers who attended the meeting for more details.
"But we also have a responsibility to the taxpayers. We can't keep taxing them - and we can't subject them to the volatile swings in this industry any longer," he added. "We're not the federal government. We can't print our own money."
With that in mind, the board said, the only alternatives appear to be selling or closing the home.
The board believes the home can survive under a private owner, saying they have funding options county-owned homes do not.
And a county-operated home is under a "microscope" others are not, while facing funding cuts and increased regulation that has forced counties out of the nursing home business, board members said.
Commissioner Bill Harris said the home historically has been open to "political influences" that have undermined operations, adding that some officeholders and disgruntled employees "have used this venue to undermine management and the commissioners."
He said the board "gave it our best shot" but said the chance of turning things around seems "insurmountable" under county control.
One longtime Laurel Crest staffer called the move "a slap in the face" after years of work. Another, declining to give his name, said the county was making a poor move "putting it out on the auction block."
Commissioner Bill Harris countered it appears to be the county's strongest option.
"This is the only option that preserves the jobs," Stevens said.
The commissioners are hopeful the home will attract numerous bidders.
Still, it was tough news Thursday for Pete Storm, a 14-year Laurel Crest resident who has weathered talk of a sale before.
"I don't know what to say right now," he said, shaking his head, while recalling a previous board's attempts at a 2003 sale. "It's different this time because it seems like their minds are made up."