By Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star
---- — COOPERSTOWN — A parade of advocates for keeping Otsego Manor a public nursing home failed to dissuade the county board Wednesday from moving ahead with authorizing a $35,000 expenditure to hire a law firm that will offer guidance on ways to sell the facility to a private buyer.
The law firm, Harris Beach, has been working with several other upstate counties whose public nursing homes have been buffeted by the same financial shortfalls and rising public subsidies that have prompted Otsego County representatives to consider privatizing the 174-bed Manor.
One of the options suggested by a Harris Beach lawyer who met for about two hours in a closed meeting with board members Wednesday afternoon is to form a local development corporation that would manage the sale of the Manor, according to county officials.
If a local development corporation is formed to manage the sale of the nursing home, the entity would effectively put the county board members on the sidelines for the process, and the effort to sell the Manor would likely be on an irreversible course, according to officials familiar with the discussions.
The lawyer, Shawn Griffin, contacted later by The Daily Star, said he has provided guidance to two counties — Ulster and Onondaga — that are moving forward with plans to privatize their nursing homes. He said another county he has been advising — Lewis — began looking at privatizing its nursing home but has since reversed course.
Griffin said he will be assisting county officials in formulating “question and answer” packets that will be handed out at a series of upcoming meetings that the board’s Manor Committee will hold to explain the nursing home’s situation and options for resolving it.
Rep. Katherine Stuligross, D-Oneonta, the chairwoman of the Manor Committee, has said those meetings will be “informational” in nature, and are not intended for citizens to try to change the board’s view that privatizing the Manor is the best course.
Maureen Culbert of Springfield, the organizer of a grassroots group called Save the Manor, said she was disappointed that the board remains bent on privatization and has made no effort to initiate negotiations with the Civil Service Employees Association. Such a sitdown, she said, could yield new savings for the county.
“What a joke,” she said of the board members, arguing privatization will lead to a severe decline in the quality of patient care at the Manor. “These people would do more research in buying a car for themselves than they have done on this.”
Culbert also labeled the public meetings being organized by the Manor Committee “a sham,” adding: “I hope people show up in force at those meetings.”
She specifically criticized Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, arguing that as chairman of the board’s Negotiations Committee he “is costing the county money” by not inviting the union to the bargaining table.
Powers said it was “unrealistic” to expect the union to agree to concessions that would drastically cut wages for its members. But even if the union did agree to accept cuts that, for exampled, converted a $16-an-hour job to a $9-an-hour job, Powers said, it would still not bridge the funding gap that has created a financial burden for the county.
“You’re going to force a lot of people out of their homes if you raise property taxes, 25, 30 or 40 percent,” he said.
Earlier, many Save the Manor advocates streamed into the county courthouse to urge the board to pursue ways to keep the facility county-owned. Karen Carpenter, a CSEA representative, cited a 2011 report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in arguing that local development corporations have been criticized for lack of transparency and taking actions without being accountable to local residents.
“We urge you to avoid this trap,” Carpenter said, adding the board should spend more time listening to suggested solutions for the Manor’s financial woes. “You shouldn’t use the public meetings to sell the public selling of the Manor.”
Fred Culbert, husband of Maureen Culbert, said the more than 2,000 people who have signed a Save the Manor petition are spread throughout the county. Citing a review of the residences of those people, he said, “Please don’t tell me everyone wants the county to sell the Manor.”
Sam Wilcox, a retired social worker from Cooperstown, told the representatives they have not spent enough time researching ways that could potentially solve the Manor’s financial woes.
“Many of us question your rush to vote on this issue,” he said.
Middlefield Town Supervisor Dave Bliss urged the county representatives to lobby Albany for a better reimbursement rate for caring for the Manor patients. Even if the county decides it can no longer manage the home, he said, the county should continue to keep ownership of the building because, were it to be sold, the county would no longer have any say in what happens at the facility.
Griffin emphasized in an interview that the county board has made no final decision on how it will address the Manor’s financial predicament.
“We intend to put everything out before the public before any final decision is made,” Griffin said.