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The Rock Island County Board’s decision Wednesday to set in motion the sale of Hope Creek Care Center was no doubt an agonizing one.

But it was the right choice and, ultimately, the only responsible path stewards of taxpayer dollars could take for the county-owned nursing home in financial crisis.

Selling Hope Creek to a private company experienced in navigating our modern health care system and a highly competitive and evolving nursing home industry also could prove to be the best option for the residents and families it serves. Certainly private ownership is preferable to closing the doors altogether, which would have been the likely result if the crisis at Hope Creek continued unabated.

It is important to remember, however, that there still is a long way to go before the county home can end up in private hands. The unanimous vote at Wednesday’s committee-of-the-whole meeting merely advanced the issue to this Tuesday’s board meeting.

Still, it was an essential first step in a long-overdue process. So please join us in saluting board members who found the courage to do what simply had to be done following the presentation of an analysis conducted by Management Performance Associates (MPA).

As we had hoped, the report appeared to provide the impetus necessary to begin the process to save the home by selling it.

We fully expect, however, that those who love the home and have labored to save it will have plenty to say to board members between now and Tuesday that will test their resolve. That includes Hope Creek’s dedicated employees, whom Matt Gima, MPA executive vice president, singled out for well-deserved praise Wednesday.

"Despite everything, the staff there is amazing," Gima said. "The people who have to utilize nursing home facilities say Hope Creek is the best home in the area. The care that is being given at this home is something all of you should be very, very proud of."

Because of that dedication, many employees will no doubt advocate for saving Hope Creek at all costs. So will some volunteers and families who are dedicated to the county home. And the MPA report provided them with some potent ammunition in its assessment that, despite everything, a county-run Hope Creek remains a candidate for a turnaround.

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But board members and Hope Creek supporters would be wise to consider just how hard it will be to do so. Most of the steps MPA recommends will be difficult to take, and all of them will be necessary to preserve a county-owned Hope Creek. How difficult?

They include, for example, slashing  jobs, eliminating step pay increases, reducing paid holidays from 13 to eight, making scheduling and compensation changes to reduce huge overtime costs, and cutting Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund costs. Any one of these would be a bitter pill to swallow for proudly pro-union board members.

The report also said Hope Creek must stop accepting Medicaid patients, and increase private-pay and Medicare residents. That will be a hard sell for members and residents who see serving residents in need as the county home's most important mission.

There is much riding on the shoulders of the 25 men and women of the county board Tuesday. And we do not wish to downplay the challenge facing them. As County Administrator Jim Snider said, "This is, in my career, the hardest decision any elected board has ever had to deal with. I'm anticipating we'll have a lot of critical thinking about this."

As members do their thinking, we urge them to remember that today Hope Creek stands $7.5 million in debt, including $2.5 million owed to vendors, some of which have suspended service due to nonpayment. Another $3.4 million is owed to  taxpayers who must make up the shortfalls. That  constant infusion of tax dollars to stem the hemorrhaging at Hope Creek continues to rob a cash-strapped county and taxpayers of money that cannot be spent elsewhere.

Finally, board members must resist the urge to delay action yet again by hiring another management firm, commissioning another study, or appointing a new board to find them an easier answer.

We urge readers to contact board members before Tuesday's vote (find out how at www.rockisland.county.org/CountyBoard/Members) and tell them there are no easy answers; only a single, difficult path ahead.

Then join us in urging board members to do their duty, screw up their courage, and take it.

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