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September 16, 2019

Battle to save Hope Creek continues

AFSCME members protest potential sale of county nursing home

Attempts to sell or privatize Hope Creek Care Center have become almost habitual in Rock Island County. Despite the home being a fixture in the community since the 1800s, the question of whether the county will keep it has been ongoing for the past several years.

Through it all, AFSCME Local 2371 members have always been there, fighting against political efforts to unload the public home. They successfully beat back a particularly aggressive attempt to privatize the home in 2013, just four years after the county re-opened the center in a brand-new East Moline facility.

But never has the option of sale been as threatening as it is today.

Years of financial mismanagement have left the home in massive debt. According to county administrator Jim Snider, Hope Creek is $7.5 million in debt, including $2.5 million owed to vendors—like contracted nursing and physical therapy services.

It also owes the county $3.4 million. The county has repeatedly used its general fund to cover costs incurred by the home, including payroll.

And now the county board has made a big move. On June 18 board members voted 16-5 to authorize a request for proposals to purchase the home.

A constant fight

“Hope Creek has always been a political football,” said Local 2371 President Rhonda Westmorland. “I’ve worked there almost 20 years and it seems like there’s always a fight to keep the home. And now we’re back at it again.”

Westmorland said the facility has laid off workers and closed two floors to cut costs. Her own position as a social worker was recently cut and she moved into a receptionist position (she’s now on medical leave).

But she said these measures haven’t helped and are actually hurting the home’s ability to stay afloat.

“By closing those two floors, we’ve crowded our short-term floor, which is meant for people recovering from surgeries and getting rehab,” she said. “So now there isn’t the room for short-term patients and that’s a money-maker.”

AFSCME Council 31 Staff Representative Audie Schmidt agrees.

“They are making moves that aren’t smart and haven’t listened to the good ideas we’ve been suggesting over the years,” Schmidt said. “They have excess capacity right now, but there’s a waitlist of people who want single rooms. They could convert the empty double occupancy rooms into singles, but they haven’t.”

Schmidt said Hope Creek has also added a lot of higher-paid management positions while short staffing is a real problem on the ground.

“We’ve been at every board meeting, sharing our concerns and offering ideas,” Schmidt said. “They’ve known for years the home has been in a precarious financial situation, teetering on bankruptcy, but nothing was done.”

Residents at risk

Westmorland said her number one concern is the residents and she knows her co-workers feel the same way. They feel the county is only looking at the home in terms of financials, but frontline employees are thinking of the residents and families they have worked with for years.

“The community won’t have a place to go,” Westmorland worried. “I can’t tell you how heartbreaking it is to hear residents cry and ask, where am I going to live?”

“I’ve been trying to say, ‘thank you’ to all of the employees because they deserve to be thanked,” resident Don Peterson told the Quad City Times. “I try to express my gratitude to each of them as I see them. I know it affects me, but it affects them just as much.”

The board would have to approve a sale by a two-thirds majority. But statements to the press by board members aren’t promising.

“I’d say our backs are to the wall,” said County Board Chairman Richard Brunk.

“There could be a turn around, but there are so many things that would have to align for this turn around to happen,” said board member Drue Mielke. “I think it’s at that point where there is no other option.”

At the bargaining table

Similarly bleak statements have been made at the bargaining table with Local 2371 members.

Westmorland said bargaining has been difficult but employees continue to make resident well-being their first priority.

“Our local is as strong as ever,” she said. “We want our facility saved. It’s never been about us; it’s about saving our residents.”

She said that she’s bolstered by the support of her fellow union members in the Quad City Federation of Labor and other local AFSCME unions—and the families of Hope Creek residents—who have come out to show their support for the home.

The employees of Hope Creek remain committed to fighting to keep the nursing home public for the benefit of the entire community.

“The board is talking about selling and our residents are worried about where they are going to live,” she said. “What happened to taking care of our community? Isn’t that what Hope Creek was supposed to be about?”