During an emotional meeting, the Douglas County Commission voted 2-1 Wednesday night to close the county-owned Valley View Care Home within three years.
From her seat among about 30 shocked onlookers, Rheda B. Wales immediately spoke up for her friends at the home many of whom were too frail to attend when Commission Chairman Louie McElhaney rapped his gavel, closing the matter.
"It's going to be on your heads if somebody dies," she declared. "You should have to suffer along with them."
Wales, 1826 Haskell Ave., used a walker to approach the lectern during the public comment session.
She told the commission that she often visited residents and saw their trauma when there was talk of closing the 32-year-old facility.
McElhaney and Commissioner Jim Chappell defended the decision as the first step in a larger process.
Chappell said a decision about the home would force a chain reaction of decisions, such as building a new facility and providing a series of elderly care services. McElhaney said he wanted to see the private sector support a need that the county has shouldered for too long.
COMMISSIONER Mark Buhler voted against the three-year deadline. He argued that more information was necessary about who would provide for residents before setting a closing date.
When the home closes, Douglas County will be among an increasing number of Kansas counties that have turned over nursing home care to private industry. According to a 1991 study, Valley View was one of only 15 county-owned nursing facilities in Kansas, accounting for about 6 percent all nursing home facilities in the state.
Wales said after the meeting that the commission should have made plans for a new facility before even considering closing Valley View.
"That way, the residents would have a place to go and there wouldn't be any trauma at all," she said.
Margaret Farley, executive director of Kansans for the Improvement of Nursing Homes, said the county would be 30 nursing home beds short of accommodating residents if the home were closed today.
SHE AND KINH founder Petey Cerf asked the commission to stay in the nursing facility business even if it chose to close Valley View.
"We have not acted as we should to build a new facility," Farley said. "That mistake has already been made. It would be a bigger mistake if we decide that this is a community service we're going to do away with."
Cerf advocated building a new 100- to 120-bed facility financed by general obligation bonds.
As well as serving Medicaid patients, Cerf said, a new county facility would attract paying customers that could adequately cover its operating costs, unlike at Valley View.
"That subsidy is just ghastly," Cerf said of yearly amounts as high as $476,000 that the commission has given the home.
Ed Dutton, chairman of the Douglas County Advocacy Council on the Aging, praised commissioner Chappell for initiating a plan, but wondered if the ends justified the means.
"I STILL think that before you act, you have to think, and we haven't done that," Dutton said.
Dutton supported Buhler's philosophy that the commission needed more information.
Buhler was part of a 3-0 commission vote in 1992 denying Dutton's request for a task force of local experts charged with studying long-term elderly care.
Theresa O'Dell, a Valley View nurse, said 107 people would be directly affected by the commission's decision, 47 residents and 60 employees, not including families and friends.
She defended the Valley View staff's commitment and reputation for quality care.
O'Dell has worked in geriatric care for 15 years and has spent the past five months at Valley View.
"In that time, I've just seen excellence in nursing home care," she said. "Our specialty is dignity. . . . why break up a good thing?"
McELHANEY said he was concerned with the structure's ability to continue supporting adequate care. KINH began calling the 1961 cinderblock building antiquated as early as 1978.
"I don't think there has ever been a question of care given by the staff," McElhaney said.
County Administrator Craig Weinaug drafted the approved motion based on McElhaney and Chappell's statements. Buhler said he would have been reluctant to pass any motion.
It directs the Valley View board of trustees, appointed by the commission to oversee the home, to develop a plan for closing the facility by 1996.
The plan should include measures to adequately place residents within the county and should allow employees enough time to find alternate employment.
If the board determines that a shortage of nursing beds in the county would result, any closing date must allow enough time for a new facility to be built, the motion states.
BOARD OF trustees member Bob Georgeson said the board had asked the commission to make a decision about whether the county planned to close the home.
Georgeson said that he knew now that the home would be closed but did not know what role the county will play after its closing.
"I think that needs to be answered at the same time," he said.
Buhler said by setting a date, the commission has put the board and the home's staff in an awkward position.
"What kind of job is that? You're out of business in two years, now come help us," Buhler asked, incredulous.
Chappell said private agencies would "crawl out of the woodwork" after hearing about Wednesday's decision.
"Everyone was waiting to see what we were going to do, and now they know," he said. "We need to give ourselves a deadline. Otherwise, we're not ever going to get a new facility and we're not going to improve anything out there."
McELHANEY said he had been examining the issue for four years.
"If we don't make a decision tonight," he said, "we're not any closer to making one than we were four years ago."
Had the commission studied more options before deciding, Buhler said, he might have agreed with Chappell and McElhaney.
"What's the hurry," he said. "I get frustrated when people in government and everyone moves slow, but I don't have all the answers.
"I don't want to look these people in the eye and say, `In three years, Valley View is not going to be here.'"