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March 2, 2013

New clash over Manor sale

By Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — Otsego Manor advocate Maureen Culbert called on Otsego County lawmakers Friday to begin renegotiating the labor contract with the nursing home’s workers and postpone an upcoming vote authorizing the sale of the county-owned facility.

The monthly meeting of the Board of Representatives, to be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Cooperstown, is shaping up as another showdown between privatization opponents, led by Culbert, and board members who say the escalating public subsidy for the home is unsustainable for the county.

The board’s agenda includes a resolution that authorizes the sale of the 174-bed home to the highest “responsible” bidder. The panel voted in September to authorize the sale, but that decision was voided by a state judge who sided with the Civil Service Employees Union by ruling the board members violated the state Open Meeting Law.

“The board has dragged its feet on negotiations with the union,” said Culbert. She argued that the county legislators are squandering what she called a valuable opportunity to wring significant savings for the county by pushing for contractual concessions from the bargaining unit for the workers.

Mark Kotzin, a spokesman for CSEA, said the union wants to enter negotiations with the county. But as for agreeing to any concessions, that would only be considered if there were “guarantees” that the Manor would remain a public nursing home for a significant period of time.

A plan promoted by Rep. John Kosmer, D-Fly Creek, to keep the Manor as a county property was also premised on union concessions, as well as a survey of country residents to determine if there is popular support for sales tax increase to bring in more revenue. His plan has been shot down twice, once by the full board, and once by the Manor Committee, of which he is a member.

Kosmer said he will ask the board Wednesday to table the resolution to sell the Manor.

Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, the chairman of the board’s Negotiations Committee, has said he sees no point in opening negotiations with the union given there has been no showing of support for the sales tax hike. He also said the union likely realizes it’s not in its own best interests to make such concessions.

If the union were to accept wage cuts, Powers said, “that would tell the new owner they are willing to work for a lot less money.”

Powers also suggested Democrats are pushing for a public poll on a sales tax hike in order to avoid being accountable themselves for making such a decision. Further, he said, insisting on opening contract talks with the union before the sales tax issue is settled is “putting the cart before the horse.”

Even if negotiations were to begin this month, he said, “it could take two or three years before you come up with an answer,” while passing a sales tax increase could be done at one meeting, if enough board members voted for it.

Culbert said she will ask the board to table the privatization resolution until after a series of public meetings on the plan to sell the Manor are completed. Those meetings are set to begin this month.

The growing subsidy for the Manor recently compelled county officials to scrutinize every line of spending for each county agency in an effort to reduce spending. The county’s managerial employees have gone without cost of living increases for the past several years, and many agencies have seen reductions in their work force.

Culbert said state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, recently told her he would be open to promoting legislation authorizing a sales tax increase if there is a demonstration that the county board and the public are supportive of such an a increase.

Seward’s office has said earlier he is not in favor of a tax hike. The senator did not return a telephone message left with an aide seeking comment.

Culbert said she is asking Manor supporters to contact their county representatives and urge them to table the resolution authorizing the Manor sale. She said more than 2,000 county residents have now signed a petition opposing the plan to privatize the nursing home.