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November 29, 2012

Otsego board grilled on Manor, job cuts

The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — An Otsego County staffer who helps the elderly with questions about their medical benefits and Public Defender Richard “Otto” Rothermel were among a parade of people who urged county lawmakers Wednesday night to reconsider planned job cuts included in the tentative budget.

Fighting for his job and supported by about two dozen people who flocked to the Otsego County Courthouse for a public hearing on the spending plan, David Polley, an Office for the Aging benefits specialist, said services to the aged population “will suffer dramatically” if his position is eliminated.

Numerous senior citizens and John Imperato Sr., the president of the county’s Civil Service Employees Association local union, asked the board to keep Polley on the job.

“Why are we attacking our elderly?” asked Imperato, who also criticized the Board of Representatives’ decision earlier this year to seek a private operator for the 174-bed Otsego Manor nursing home.

Board Chairwoman Kathleen Clark, R-Otego noted the board is facing tough choices heading into 2013 as a result of having to increase its subsidy to keep the county-owned nursing home operating from $3.3 million this year to $5.5 million next year.

She said unfunded mandates imposed by the state and rising retirement costs for public employees have forced the board to whittle away at services and consider cuts that prove to be unpopular.

Among the cuts included in the tentative budget — as released by county Treasurer Dan Crowell, who packed the document after consulting with board members — is the elimination of one of the five part-time assistant public defenders.

Rothermel challenged the reasoning for that cut, arguing the cost of providing representation to people who can’t afford a lawyer will end up increasing because it will drive more cases to so-called assigned counsel — private lawyers who work at a much higher hourly rate.

He also expressed concern that eliminating the job of one of his assistants will prompt others to resign from the office — leading to an even bigger increase in the number of cases routed to assigned counsel. Rothermel said the current assistants could end up making more money by working less if they simply quit and join the pool of lawyers working as assigned counsel. He said he could also retire, collect his pension and work as an assigned counsel.

“I’ll win, the assistants will win, but I’m concerned the county will lose,” he said.

The most consistent topics that ran through the remarks from those who sounded off at the forum dealt with requests to keep Polley in his position and to reconsider the sale of the nursing home.

Bob Compani, another CSEA official, described how patient care has declined and working conditions for staffers have suffered since a nursing home formerly operated by Fulton County was privatized.

“I have seen it in my home town,” said Compani, who is from Gloversville. “Don’t let it happen here.”

He said scores of employees have left their jobs at that facility, despite the fact Gloversville has one of the highest unemployment rates in New York.

The board is expected to act on the $124.5 million tentative budget at its monthly meeting next Wednesday.

Clark, in an interview, said the spending plan could be amended then, after she and other board members reflect on the comments made by citizens.

Rep. Rich Murphy, D-town of Oneonta, said he plans to meet today with Polley, whose job elimination was proposed by Frances Wright, the director of the Office for the Aging. Murphy said he has never seen such a strong showing of public support for one county worker.

Meanwhile, Murphy said he expects the panel will continue to examine the possibility of tacking on a quarter of a percentage point to the county sales tax in order to avoid the possibility of cutting more jobs and services. However, it will not be possible to enact such an increase in time to impact the budget that will be acted on next week.

The tentative budget amounts to a 1.97 percent increase over the county’s 2012 property tax levy.