‘Mistrust, disrespect’: Staffing crisis at county-run nursing home exposes deep divisions among Dane County leaders

A key administrator goes on record with Naomi Kowles, criticizing elected county officials for a 'lack of trust' in their managers; the county's board chair responds.

VERONA, Wis. — A crisis of staffing at the Dane County-run nursing home in Verona has further exposed deepening divisions between the county’s elected officials and some of its key department heads and division administrators.

“We can’t keep heading down this path where there’s such mistrust and lack of respect for the Dane County division administrators, with such a reliance on the employee organization officials,” Badger Prairie Health Care Center administrator Bill Brotzman said in a lengthy interview this week. “I need to be able to make decisions here.”

His words in the interview echoed those of Shawn Tessmann, the recently-resigned director of Dane County Human Services. At the end of July, the Wisconsin State Journal reported on her fiery resignation letter, accusing elected officials of disrespecting county managers, relying too heavily on employee groups for decisions, and cultivating a “corrosive and caustic” culture.

County board chair Patrick Miles in a responding interview pointed to deteriorating and last-minute communication from executives to elected officials as one source of the problem. The board’s job is oversight and stewardship of public dollars, he noted, referencing a recent vote that prompted Brotzman’s public comments.

“I’m not going to make any apologies for us doing our job.”

Nationwide staffing shortage reaches Badger Prairie

Brotzman has led the Badger Prairie Health Care Center in Verona for eight years, the county-run nursing home and a division of its human services department. The 120-bed facility specializes in taking patients whose care needs are more specialized and intensive than what other nursing homes can typically handle.

“That’s our specialty,” Brotzman explained during a News 3 visit to the facility.

He’s proud of the home’s record: health care consulting firms that work with the federal government overseeing elderly care have recently requested the home’s nurse management team to present on their best practices for facilities around the country. Badger Prairie ranks below the national average for state and federal citations, and in the top percentage nationwide for infection control.

Amid nation and statewide staff shortages in facilities for elderly care, it’s only been this year that the facility has struggled to replace retiring staff.

“We are on the brink of a staffing crisis,” Brotzman said. Walking through the halls around lunch time, he described the hours nurses were working in order to maintain needed staffing levels.

“It’s not uncommon to have someone work 80 hours of regular time and 40 hours of overtime in a pay period,” he said. “You see a lot of double shifts, 16-hour shifts.”

County committee punts on key decision

The staffing concerns expose a deepening divide between some division administrators and the county board that controls their budgets.

Last week, Dane County’s Health and Human Needs committee delayed a vote until late September that would have approved a 13-week, $330,000 contract adding additional travel nurses to stave off the shortage at Badger Prairie.

The delay was introduced in order to get more input from the county’s employee group AFSCME Local 720, the modern version of its pre-Act 10 unions. AFSCME representative Neil Rainford said in a statement that the contract for four agency nurses would cost three to five times the cost of hiring permanent nurses, and that staff wasn’t consulted about the contract.

It was that decision that prompted Brotzman to go on the record this week, sharply criticizing the recently-elected county board for disrespecting and distrusting administrators (in the spring election, about a third of the board changed hands.) He regularly seeks employee input, he noted, including quarterly meetings with staff and employee group representatives.

“Some members of the County Board still made it clear that they don’t trust our leadership team here, and the managers to make the proper decisions,” Brotzman said. “Instead they’ve asked that union officials insert themselves into our operational decisions. These individuals haven’t even set foot in our building, ever. And they’re being asked to come in and provide us guidance on our operational decisions.”

Board chair Patrick Miles disagreed that the county committee had erred in delaying a decision on adding travel nurses to stave off the facility’s staffing shortages.

“The committee reasonably asked, ‘What happens at the end of 13 weeks?’ It’s a lot of money for nurses,” he said. “We have a situation where at the eleventh hour, they’re bringing this contract for consideration. And to me, that sends a message that they think the county board a ministerial act. We’re not.”

Without further action from the board, Brotzman said, he’s considering stopping the acceptance of new patients — the facility has a waiting list. Further staffing restrictions may include closing areas within the facility.

“With the advent of the new board, clearly there is a pattern of going in this direction with mistrust of management and leadership and more reliance on the employee unions for input,” Brotzman said.

‘No business in our operations’: Sharp criticism of employee groups

Worsening relationships between administrators, employee group stewards, and elected county board members was a theme of the letter former DCHS head Shawn Tessmann included in a letter reported by the Wisconsin State Journal in July.

“It is obvious to me that (employee group) opinions are taken and revered as fact and treated as such without the benefit of hearing from management or considering that the (employee group) opinion represents only one version of the truth,” she wrote.

In Brotzman’s view, employee groups should be advocating for staff needs, not interfering in operational decisions.

“Politics are getting in the way of health care and care acuity decisions for our residents,” he said. “[Employee groups] have no business in our operations. They are not subject matter experts.”

Miles, however, pointed to a long and progressive history of Dane County officials giving a voice to unions in the democratic process. Act 10 stripped most bargaining rights from public employees, but the county board through its employee handbook has continued to extend many of the same bargaining abilities with employee groups.

“It is deeply unfortunate that some among the County’s Administration have refused to listen to employees’ perspectives,” Rainford said in an email. “The facility’s own nurses weren’t consulted about the proposed contract.  It was only after they had communicated objections about the proposed contract through their association representatives that the administration met with them to find out how to better recruit and retain additional permanent in-house nurses.”

In a statement, county executive Joe Parisi called for a resolution to politics stalling a decision on the staff shortages, and said the board should listen to voices with expertise, training, and background in running the facility.

“Those responsible for the safety and well-being of those residents are the voices policy makers should be listening to,” Parisi wrote. “As those who run our county departments often do, I believe staff brought forward a common sense, practical, timely solution.”

County board chair Patrick Miles’ interview, as well as expanded comment from Brotzman, will air on For the Record with Naomi Kowles on Sunday, September 11, at 10:30am.

Photojournalist Lance Heidt contributed to this report.