For bean counters, deciding the fate of the Groveland Outpatient Rehabilitation center is easy. The place loses $185,000 a year: shut it down.

But there are more than numbers, dollars and cents involved in this debate. Perhaps Tuolumne County Supervisor Dick Pland put it best during a circuitous argument over patient counts during last week's emotional hearing on the rehab center's future.

"We can debate these numbers all night," Pland said. "It isn't a matter of numbers, it's a matter of people."

He got that right, and so did the Board of Supervisors, which voted to keep the Main Street Center open for another year while the Tuolumne County staff looks for a permanent solution.

The people Pland talked of were out in force last Tuesday night: More than 200 of them packed Groveland Community Hall to urge that the board to spare the rehab center. And when those had used the center's physical therapy services were asked to raise their hands, nearly 200 shot into the air.

To be more specific, more than 2,600 patients visited the center in each of the past two fiscal years. Many were elderly south county residents recovering from surgery. More than 95 percent were from Groveland, Big Oak Flat, Coulterville and Moccasin.

Fully three-quarters of the center's patients are from Groveland and Pine Mountain Lake and represent about 7 percent of all those living in the area.

But no, in answer to the expected bean counters' questions, 2,600 patients a year is not nearly enough to move the center into the black. In fact, unless business takes a sudden and sharp upturn, keeping the place open for the remainder of the 2007-08 fiscal year will cost the county at least $156,000.

Looking at its red-inked bottom line, critics liken the rehab center to the late, cash hemorrhaging Tuolumne General Hospital and believe it should suffer the same fate.

In fact the rehab center was part of the TGH operation that was spared July closure because administrators thought they could turn its finances around.

That didn't happen, and Supervisor Paolo Maffei told the gathered Groveland crowd to deal with it.

"Don't pretend you are the only one impacted," said Maffei, who voted against the year-long extension but was willing to give the center a six-month, reduced-hour trial.

Apparently lost on Maffei and on Liz Bass, who joined him on the short end of a 3-2 vote, was that Groveland rehab center patients are different from patrons displaced by the closure of the Sonora-based county hospital. TGH patients could move to Sonora Regional Medical Center, less than a mile away and on public transit routes.

But should the Groveland rehab center close, its patients would face a far more inconvenient and even potentially dangerous fate: Driving down Priest Grade old or new to Sonora for therapy.

"I don't know how we'd do it," lamented a Greeley Hill woman whose husband was about to undergo double knee surgery.

Thanks to the board's action last week, she won't have to. In fact even the bean counters can take some solace from the decision: The county won't be simply leaving well enough alone.

County Administrator Craig Pedro has promised that the rehab center will get his "personal scrutiny." Not only will he examine revenues and expenses for potential savings, but will continue to explore what he believes will be the ultimate solution: finding a private operator to take over the rehab center, perhaps in combination with a rural clinic.

The board's decision last week gives Pedro and his staff the breathing room to work on this solution while at the same time allowing Groveland's therapy patients to breathe a whole lot easier in the months to come.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.