Schuylkill County commissioners on Wednesday threw the county nursing home the only lifeline they believe possible: A new owner.

The home is drowning in $4.6 million of red ink.

Commissioners unanimously agreed to enter into a professional services agreement with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott of Harrisburg, to begin the process of finding a buyer for Rest Haven.

"This is a very difficult decision for the county to make. It's something we've been deliberating for quite some time," said commissioners Chairman Frank J. Staudenmeier.

The process will take from six to nine months, said Mark Stewart, a representative of the firm.

The county has already gotten nibbles of interest from companies generated by news reports of a possible sale, said county administrator Mark Scarbinsky.

Commissioners said they will write three "policy directives" into any sales contract: The new owner will continue Rest Haven's tradition of providing a high quality of care and quality of life for residents; secure guaranteed access to long-term care for the indigent; and ensure the long-term care needs of county residents are met into the future.

The county on Monday sent each resident a letter explaining the move and met with staff this week.

"We didn't want them to read this in the newspaper," Staudenmeier said.

All three commissioners praised Rest Haven staff and its manager, Service Access Management.

Commissioners hired SAM about two years ago to try to turn the home around.

The company was successful in filling all 142 beds, but could not stem the tide of red ink.

"This is not the fault of anybody. This is the fault of the system," Staudenmeier said.

"It's a situation where it's costing us $220 a day per resident, and we're being reimbursed $175. If you do the math, it translates to a $2 million a year loss. Obviously, we just cannot do it," Staudenmeier said.

"The private sector can do it a lot better than government can," he said.

Staudenmeier said Rest Haven is considered one of the best nursing homes in the county. It will remain a nursing home, he said.

"I can tell you emphatically, that we will not consider a sale any other than a nursing home," Staudenmeier said.

Commissioner George F. Halcovage Jr. said Rest Haven has been financially troubled for many years. But the county has done all it can.

"Our goal is for this (sale) to be a win-win-win for everyone," the residents, the staff and the taxpayers, he said.

Commissioner Gary J. Hess said Rest Haven has been and remains good for Schuylkill County.

"I always felt it was an asset, and I believe it's still a great asset to our county because of our demographics, our senior population, our people who sometimes can't afford health care," Hess said.

"Our role as commissioners and county is to provide services. and to make sure it's financially sound for residents and for taxpayers."

He hopes the sale will enable the home to continue, on a more fiscally sound path.

"We're not closing this place," Hess said. "The only difference is the government is not running the facility. This is a facility that is alive. It has a heartbeat, it has people."