A simmering behind-the-scenes disagreement has broken out among members of the Otsego County local development corporation in the selection of a private operator for the debt-plagued Otsego Manor nursing home, The Daily Star learned Friday.
Sources familiar with the debate said the highest bid for the Manor from the two companies that remain in contention is an $18.5-million offer from Focus Ventures, an investment firm from Airmont, Rockland County. It operates a 120-bed nursing home in Utica, Focus Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.
The other bid is an offer of $15 million from VestraCare, which runs nursing homes in Johnson City and Kingston.
One of the seven members of the Otsego County Healthcare Facilities Corp., William Dornburgh of Cooperstown, told The Daily Star that he wants the board to accept the offer from VestraCare because its nursing homes have been ranked by the federal government as far better than the score achieved by the Focus property in Utica.
Dornburgh, a retired bank executive who once served as the chairman of the board of trustees for a New Jersey hospital, also said he has questions about the financial soundness of Focus. He doesn't have those same concerns with Vestra, he said. He said he was concerned that the majority of the local development corporation board is favoring awarding the contract to Focus, even though, he noted, its Utica property got a "1" ranking, a low score, when it was last evaluated by the federal government in January 2013.
"I know $3.5 million isn't chump change for a county in financial trouble," he said. "But I think we should go with a company that shows it offers the best care."
One of the few county residents who had spoke at public meetings in favor of privatizing the nursing home, Dornburgh, 82, said he cares deeply about the future of the Manor, noting his wife, Patricia, is a resident there.
The two nursing homes run by VestraCare, he said, attained scores of "4" and "5" after their most recent federal inspections, facts that LDC members favoring Focus did not dispute.
While Otsego County officials often hail the quality of care at the Manor, the facility's last score from federal inspectors was also a "1."
County Reps. Katherine Stuligross, D-Oneonta, and Don Lindberg, R-Worcester, the only two LDC members who are also members of the Board of Representatives, said Focus had acquired what had been a troubled Utica nursing home in 2011 and has since improved it.
"We went through there (the Utica facility) and they were doing an excellent job," said Lindberg, arguing he has been not been swayed by Dornburgh's argument that VestraCare would offer superior care if it acquires the Manor.
Lindberg said Dornburgh criticized the Focus application because it contained a misspelling for the word "Otsego."
"What does it matter that they spelled a word wrong?" Lindberg said.
Dornburgh said two other members of the LDC board prefer VestraCare: Dr. Donald Pollock, the former medical director of the forerunner of the Manor, the nursing home then known as Otsego Meadows; and Carol Kirkey of Oneonta, whose late husband had been a Manor patient.
Stuligross stressed in an interview that a final decision on a buyer for the 174-bed Manor has not yet been made.
"We are committed to finding a buyer who can deliver quality care and has a strong financial status and makes a good bid," she said.
She acknowledged that at this stage she prefers the offer from Focus, noting it has made "tremendous progress," with the Utica nursing home. She also said that the Manor's administrator, Kurt Apthorpe, and director of nursing, Maureen Imperato, were also impressed with the Focus home in Utica.
Stuligross said while the county continues to lose money on the Manor to the tune of about $500,000 each month, no decision will be made on a buyer until the local development corporation is satisfied with the qualifications of the buyer to complete the purchase and deliver quality care. She said the next operator of the Manor must also convince the state Health Department that it can comply with stringent state standards for nursing homes.
Maureen Culbert of Springfield, a volunteer advocate for Manor patients who led opposition to the privatization of the Manor, said she is concerned that the local development corporation is rushing to sell the facility without doing adequate research and addressing the concerns raised by Dornburgh.
"They said at the beginning that it was all about the care," said Culbert. "But now it looks like it's been all about the money from the get-go. They keep coming up with new ways to make the elderly people of Otsego County feel unimportant."
Otsego County Treasurer Dan Crowell, who said he has deliberately stayed out of the loop of the local development corporation's discussions, noted he has not been advised that the two bids under consideration are $3.5 million apart.
Asked how much that amount represents on the county's property tax levy for one year, Crowell said $3.5 million equates to 30.4 percent of the $11,507,000 tax levy called for in the county's 2014 budget.
The local development corporation is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Manor.
Under the plan to sell the Manor, the county would receive the full amount due for the property at the real estate closing.