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April 11, 2013

County clears way for Manor hearing

By Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — A plan to create a local development corporation to handle the sale of the deficit-plagued Otsego Manor advanced Wednesday, setting the stage for what is expected to be an emotion-packed April 29 public hearing on the proposal.

On May 1, two days after the hearing, the full Otsego County Board of Representatives is expected to act on the proposal to create the LDC, a vehicle for selling public properties that, in the past, has been criticized by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli as a type of “shadow government.”

On Wednesday, the Board of Representatives’ Otsego Manor Committee recommended that an LDC be created by a vote of 3-1.

Backing the idea of creating the LDC to facilitate selling the Manor to a private corporation were the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Kate Stuligross, D-Oneonta; Rep. Pauline Koren, R-Milford, and Rep. Donald Lindberg, R-Worcester.

They threw their support to the LDC after county attorney Ellen Coccoma explained that the marketing of the 174-bed nursing home could be done with greater flexibility if it were handled by such a corporation.

Coccoma, who has been conferring with representatives of Harris Beach, the law firm advising the county on its Manor options, said the firm recommends creating the LDC as “an effective way to get what you’re after, which is a quality buyer at a price that is fiscally responsible.”

The lone opponent of the LDC pathway to privatization, Rep. John Kosmer, D-Fly Creek, argued the board would effectively be divorcing itself from its responsibility to ensure that whatever entity takes charge of the Manor will make quality patient care a paramount objective.

“This is exactly the responsibility we should be shouldering,” said Kosmer, who earlier this year framed unsuccessful proposals designed to find new revenue for the Manor and avoid privatization.

Several citizens also spoke up against the LDC proposal, among them Maureen Culbert of Springfield, the organizer of a grassroots group called Save the Manor, Keith Schue of Cherry Valley and Hilda Wilcox of Cooperstown.

The privatization effort is also opposed by the Civil Service Employees Association, the bargaining unit for unionized county workers, including the Manor staff.

Mark Kotzin, a CSEA spokesman, said the union will consider waging a court fight against the county if it moves forward with the plan to create the LDC.

“LDCs are an improper way of getting rid of public property, not to mention they are basically a tool to rid the board of their responsibilities to conduct competitive bidding and to be open and transparent about the process,” Kotzin said.

He said the union’s “test case” against the creation of an LDC to sell a nursing home is its pending lawsuit against Onondaga County.

Coccoma advised county representatives that she has inquired of colleagues familiar with another CSEA lawsuit, one brought against Saratoga County, and believes that litigation will fail to stop the privatization of a public nursing home there. She said she has not evaluated other legal actions the union has brought against counties.

Lindberg urged approval of the LDC, saying the spiraling subsidy the county provides to the Manor could eventually lead to the nursing home being shut down and county coffers being drained.

“The county will go broke,” he said. “There’s not much money left.”

Rep. Kathleen Clark, R-Otego, the chairwoman of the Board of Representatives, said in an interview that she plans to support the creation of the LDC. She said she could predict how her board colleagues will vote on May 1.

She said she believes the LDC is the best way to protect the Manor from closure, and should help ensure that the party that buys the nurisng home is committed to quality care. “We want to consider more than just getting the highest price,” Clark said.

Wilcox, a retired writing instructor, said the push to privatize the Manor and other public nursing homes across New York is a symptom of “morally bankrupt” national policies that place a higher priority on military spending than on caring for frail senior citizens in need of nursing care.

Schue complained it was “pretty reprehensible” that county board members supporting the LDC are “ignoring” alarm bells from Comptroller DiNapoli regarding local development corporations.

Culbert said Lindberg’s claims that the Manor could be forced to shut down if it is not privatized soon was a “scare tactics.”

CSEA representatives have said the union wants to open contract negotiations that could lead to money-saving concessions for the county. However, the county board has not taken up that offer. Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, the chairman of the negotiations committee, has said he sees no point to the talks because selling the Manor is the only way to stave off the huge tax increases that would be needed if the Manor continues to be operated by the county.

The push to privatize the Manor comes at a time when 13 of the 14 county representatives are expected to seek re-election this year. Only Rep. Catherine Rothenberger, D-Oneonta, has signaled she will leave the board when her term runs out on Dec. 31.

The public hearing to take comment from citizens on the LDC plan is tentatively slated to be held at 6 p.m. April 29 at the Otsego County Courthouse in Cooperstown.