By Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star
---- — COOPERSTOWN — Otsego County lawmakers were roundly criticized Monday night by citizens who accused them of forging ahead to create a local development corporation to sell the deficit-plagued Otsego Manor without first engaging in union contract talks and pressing the state for more aid.
The litany of complaints came at a public hearing called by the Board of Representatives on a plan to have the LDC oversee the sale of the 174-bed county-owned nursing home. Board members have said they have been forced to consider selling the Manor, despite its strong reputation for high quality patient care, because of rapidly escalating costs and cuts in government reimbursement rates.
Approximately 80 percent of the home’s residents are Medicaid patients.
Maureen Culbert of Springfield, a Manor volunteer who has led a grassroots organizing effort to keep the Manor as a county program, accused the board of refusing to explore alternatives that could make the Manor affordable to operate.
“The county board does not want the public involved,” said Culbert. A recent series of informational meetings on the proposed sale, she said, amounted to “propaganda sessions.”
Meanwhile, representatives of the Civil Service Employees Association signaled that the union will likely sue the county should the board form the LDC in order to streamline the marketing and sale of the Manor to a private operator.
Lynda Broadwell, the CSEA negotiator for the union’s county workers, said the formation of the LDC would be detrimental to both the employees and to the home’s patients. She and others argued the board was effectively washing its hands of the fate of the Manor by creating the LDC.
“Ultimately, the responsibility lies with you no matter how far you try to distance yourself from it,” Broadwell said.
The proposal to form the LDC is expected to be taken up by the Board of Representatives at its meeting at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. The meeting will be held at the Otsego Meadows office complex because it is anticipated that a large crowd of people will be in attendance.
Rep. Keith McCarty, R-Springfield, who has opposed the privatization of the Manor, said he plans to vote against the LDC option, wihch has been recommended by a lawyer retained by the board, Shawn Griffin of the law firm Harris Beach, as well as by County Attorney Ellen Coccoma.
“We were elected to do a job,” McCarty said. “We’ve hired a consultant. We’ve hired an attorney. What do we need another board for? If there is dirty work to do, I guess we should be doing it.”
Rep. Katherine Stuligross, D-Oneonta, the chairwoman of the board’s Manor Committee, said she remains convinced that forming the LDC to handle the sale of the Manor is the best path for selling a property costing the county millions of dollars a year.
“You know and I know that we have looked at lots of options,” Stuligross said. She also noted that the LDC would have no financial overheard and that none of its board members would be paid, despite claims to the contrary by some critics of the plan.
Noting that the Manor’s net deficit stood at more than $11 million at the end of 2012, Stuligross said of the LDC option: “This makes sense because it’s a faster process. I want it done as rapidly as possible.”
In February, the board had given brief consideration to a plan framed by Rep. John Kosmer, D-FLy Creek, that would have provided county representatives with direct feedback from citizens on whether they would accept a sales tax increase to help bridge the Manor financial gap. That plan withered when most board members questioned whether it was feasible to survey county residents on the proposal.
Dr. John Davis, 82, a retired physician from Middlefield, said the board was taking a “Big Daddy” approach in its dealings with county residents instead of listening to their input. He urged the lawmakers to “slow down” the push to sell the Manor, arguing more time was needed to ponder the ramifications of privatizing the public asset.
Ron Bishop, a State University College at Oneonta professor, and Adrian Kuzminski, moderator of the anti-drilling group Sustainable Otsego, both accused board members of being far too passive in the face of Albany’s move to cut reimbursement rates for Medicaid patients.
“It’s probably not tenable to get all the money you want to get from Albany,” said Bishop. “But you should be kicking and screaming for more than you’re getting now.”
One advocate for the Manor, Randy Velez of Cooperstown, accused the board of rushing to sell the home and holding the public hearing merely because it was “a checkoff on a list” on the way to having the LDC handle the sale. He said if the board was serious about considering other options, it would replace Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, as its chief labor negotiator because Powers has shunned the union.
Powers later said he sees no point in sitting down with the union. “You’d have to ask them to work for no pay,” he said, adding that keeping the Manor in county hands would lead to significant property tax hikes that would cause some senior citizens to lose their homes.
The Harris Beach lawyer, Shawn Griffin, said if the LDC is created, its meetings would be subject to the state Open Meetings Law, and its activities would be subject to the Freedom of Information Law. He said other counties that have been guided by his firm as they look to shed their nursing homes have agreed that the financial books of the LDCs that were created would be open to inspection by the state comptroller’s office.
If the Manor is offered for sale, county officials have no estimates yet as to how much a potential buyer might pay for the facility, Stuligross said.