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Restorium, Boundary County disagree over funding

BONNERS FERRY – The old-fangled name is deceptive: The Boundary County Community Restorium is not a place where elderly residents while away the days gazing out windows at the Selkirk Mountains.

They gather for group exercises, visit the county fair, surf the Web and have barbecues in an outdoor pavilion. Some drive their own cars or zip downtown on electric mobility scooters.

Evelyn Holmes brought her piano when she moved in. “I go out and wake them up once in a while,” she said with a laugh.

And just outside, Ray Olson’s garden is in full bloom with tomatoes and rhubarb, dahlias and sunflowers.

It may sound like a rest home, but it’s as active as you could expect for an assisted-living center where the average age is 90.

Owned and managed by Boundary County, the Restorium has been an affordable home to seniors for about 60 years. But big change looms.

County officials propose much higher room rates for new residents starting this fall in an effort to reduce the public subsidy the center receives. A large room, for example, would cost $2,500 a month, an increase of about $750.

The 31 current residents would stay on a lower rate plan, but the county is seeking to raise their rates 5 percent this year and 5 percent next. The Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on all the changes this afternoon.

Larry Dirks, president of the Restorium advisory board, plans to lead the charge in opposing the rate hikes. Dirks said he doesn’t understand why commissioners want to reduce the county subsidy so dramatically for a service that enjoys broad public support.

“I’m very proud to pay taxes that go to support it, and most people are,” he said. “Why don’t we build on this rather than discourage it? You know, it’s working, it works beautiful.”

The county estimates it will contribute more than $392,000 to the operation of the Restorium next year, an increase of about $80,000 from this year. The subsidy represents about 8 percent of the property taxes the county collects.

Operating expenses such as food and wages are rising, and commissioners anticipate higher health insurance costs under the new federal health care law, said Dan Dinning, chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

“We support the facility. It’s not that we’re trying to do away with it or do anything,” Dinning said. “We’re just trying to make sure it’s viable into the future.”

Quality of care appreciated

A county-owned senior home is a rare service, and the Restorium is one of the last of its kind in Idaho. It was established in the early 1950s in a former hospital, then moved into a new building in 1975.

With 35 rooms, it serves seniors who fall between independent living and needing continuous skilled care.

A booster group, the Friends of the Restorium, raises money for new furnishings and maintenance projects, and members volunteer at the center. With the donations and state grants, the Restorium has remodeled most of its rooms in the last few years, added modern showers and jet tubs, and installed an elevator last winter to reach a basement.

“It was neglected for many a year,” Dirks said.

The staff of 25 full-time and part-time employees prides itself on creating a homey, friendly atmosphere and keeping residents engaged in activities. The corridors are lined with paintings, bookshelves and knick-knacks, and a cozy new sitting room is a popular spot to enjoy coffee and cookies.

“I don’t know anybody in the 10 years I’ve been here that’s ever left because they didn’t like it,” said Jeri Witt, assistant administrator.

Fresh from having her hair done at the in-house salon, Evelyn Holmes, 89, said she moved in four years ago to recover from knee surgery. She decided to stay.

“We’re lucky to have this place,” said Holmes, who knits sweaters and plays “Home Sweet Home” and “Alley Cat” on her piano. “This is the best decision I’ve made.”

She feels independent and goes out to play cards a few times a month, but she also appreciates the level of care.

“It’s wonderful. They do everything for me,” she said. “They take me to the doctor when I have to go, they feed me very well.”

Ray Olson, 92, a Navy veteran who served in the South Pacific during World War II, spends time every day in his garden, which includes raised beds and a greenhouse. Much of the bounty goes into the meals served to residents.

“I agree with how it’s run,” said Olson, a resident for five years. “I appreciate the care they have for the people that live here.”

He started a recognition program called “We Care” in which residents give an award each month to a deserving staff member.

Guarding affordability

The county will continue to support the Restorium, Dinning said, but the annual subsidy may drop to $75,000 or $80,000 over time as new residents move in at the higher rates, which he believes will still be at the lower end of private assisted-living centers.

“We don’t want to do anything drastic to the existing individuals, because in essence we made an agreement with them,” he said. “But there needs to be a turnaround, and this was the path we felt was probably most fair to everybody and treated our existing folks well.”

The Restorium’s advisory board proposed a 3 percent hike in current rates and increasing the small-room rate about $400 a month for new residents.

“I just hope that the commissioners will listen,” Dirks said.

He worries that the new rates proposed by commissioners will make the Restorium too expensive for many seniors in the rural county.

“Let our older people have the dignity of paying their bills,” Dirks said. He once had an aunt who lived there. “One of her main concerns was, ‘Do I have enough money to see me through?’ … To me, that’s worth so much.”