By Cindi Taylor
Ila Johnston will be 103 years old in a couple of weeks. She once gave me a coffee mug that said, “In the cookies of life, friends are the chocolate chips.” She taught three generations of Spur’s school students. She fought and survived breast cancer. Because she was considered a “town character”, her photograph appeared in Texas Monthly magazine and was also featured in The Faces of Texas, an illustrative book done by the same photographer with Willie Nelson on the cover.
Saturday morning she moved away from Spur, probably for good. She left because, as a resident at a nursing home in Spur marked for closure on October 16 by Briarwood Nursing Centers, LLC and Dickens County from which Briarwood was in the process of purchasing the facility, she had to move to a place that could care for her. The nursing home, renamed White River Care Center after Briarwood took over operations from the county in July 2007, will close October 16 unless another company steps in to buy the facility or Dickens County commissioners reverse a decision they made in a September 27 special meeting. Neither seems likely, so, on Saturday morning Ila Johnson’s nephew, Les Albin who lives 330 miles away in Austin, moved her to a nursing home in Crosbyton where she will live out the rest of her days.
“At 103, I didn’t dream I would have to move her,” said Albin.
Nursing home administrator Steve Moncrief was asking families of the residents to hold off on moving their loved ones for a couple of weeks while he and Briarwood’s owner, Gerald Fowler, try to find an operator for the facility. But, since Wednesday’s commissioners court meeting, he had already lost two residents. One moved out even before Mrs. Johnston’s departure when that resident’s family moved her Wednesday afternoon after the meeting was over. Albin said he couldn’t hold off on his decision to move Mrs. Johnston.
“We can’t afford to hold off on our decision,” said Albin. “Even if they were to close in say 30 days or six months, we don’t want to get in a bind and not be able to come out here and move her.”
Ila’s departure from the home Saturday was just another heart-wrenching scenario in a complicated issue which has been debated among Dickens County residents since county officials made their 3-2 decision last Wednesday. The one common question is, “What is the main reason two county commissioners and the county judge voted against keeping the facility?” The decision came down to dollars and cents according to the three county officials who voted against keeping the facility including Dickens County Judge Lesa Arnold.
Dickens County Commissioner Doc Edwards, Precinct 3, said he voted against keeping the facility because of the expense of it to the county, and he thought it was best for the county stay out of the nursing home business.
“Everybody would love to have a nursing home if they can afford one, ” he said. “I didn’t think people in our community could afford it.”
Ricky West, Commissioner Precinct 2, said there was no main reason he voted against keeping the nursing home, but there were many issues he took under consideration for his decision. He said the cost and the liability of running the nursing home is what affected his vote.
“I hate to see it shut down as much as anybody,” said West. “Yeah, the county could operate it, but in five or ten years the county would be broke.”
West said that his constituency which lives in the northern portion of Dickens County was not in favor of keeping the nursing home, but Commissioner Sheldon Parsons, who voted to keep the nursing home open, represents Precinct 4 which encompasses the southern end of the county.
“Ninety-nine percent of my constituents were for keeping it, and I voted my constituency,” said Parsons.
So what is the issue that divides Dickens County residents?
West said his constituents cited the age of the facility, the condition of the facility, and the money that the county has already put into the facility. Parsons’ constituents see the cost as one that the county should be willing to put in to maintain a residence for its elderly taxpayers. But, at the bottom of most people’s minds was how much taxes might be increased should the county keep it open.
In last Wednesday’s meeting, one of the many Dickens County taxpayers attending, asked the commissioners court just how much taxes would have to be increased in order to subsidize the nursing home.
Commissioner Don Condron, Precinct 1, responded by saying five to eight cents per $100 valuation. He then gave an example that on a home appraised at $100,000, a seven-cent tax increase would amount to a tax increase of $70 per year. He said that an eight-cent tax increase would raise $320,000 for the nursing home. He said that the county lost $221,000 per year while it operated the nursing home. The county operated the facility for 27 months from March 2005 through June 2007 when the county sold it to Briarwood.
West said the loss was covered by county reserve money and tax money was not used to cover the loss. County Judge Lesa Arnold said the county has $5.4 million in reserve. She also told those at last week’s meeting that the nursing home had already cost the county $766,848.35 which includes the purchase price of $132,952.26 for the facility from Crosbyton Clinic Hospital in 2005.
But the cost isn’t the only thing commissioners had to consider in making a decision about the nursing home. More on that in this week’s issue of The Texas Spur.
Now Ila Johnston is no longer living in the town where she worked and influenced generations of friends, the “chocolate chips” in her life. The cost to keep her here is just too much, according to some. Sadly that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.