Orange County lawmakers’ opening debate Wednesday about a renewed push to privatize the county nursing home was heavy on process — who was notified about these plans and when, why everything had to be done so quickly, whether the planned hearing date and time could be changed — but also delved into underlying fiscal issues and familiar arguments about the home’s net cost for local taxpayers.
The matter at hand seemed fairly straightforward: to schedule a public hearing at 2 p.m. on April 4 on a fresh proposal by County Executive Steve Neuhaus to transfer the 360-bed Valley View Center for Nursing Care and Rehabilitation to a local development corporation as a means to sell it. But the dialogue took many twists and turns before lawmakers voted, 17-3, in support at around 8 p.m.
Democrats objected to being placed on a bullet-train to privatization, a step they have opposed in unison in past years. Under a timetable disclosed for the first time on March 14, county leaders initially planned to vote on the Valley View transfer right after the public hearing, only 16 days after Wednesday’s opening discussion. Legislature Chairman Steve Brescia agreed during the meeting to put off the vote, but didn’t fix a new date.
Chris Eachus, a New Windsor Democrat, pointed out that Shawn Griffin, a Harris Beach attorney who had just given lawmakers a presentation on selling nursing homes through local development corporations, had repeatedly suggested they Google for easily accessible information about the topic.
Eachus said he agreed: legislators should be given time to do their own research before being asked to vote.
“I’m ready to look it up,” Eachus said. “I want to see it.”
Roseanne Sullivan, a Town of Wallkill Democrat, lodged a similar complaint: “This is absolutely absurd that we would be asked to take this vote without being able to go home and do the research that we need to do.”
Michael Amo, an Independence Party member from Central Valley and a leading advocate for privatizing Valley View, responded to complaints about the rush by noting that lawmakers had two weeks to do their own research. He also suggested the hearing might yield input more diverse than the steady support for keeping Valley View in county hands expressed at past meetings.
“I see the public hearing as an opportunity to hear from all the people in Orange County, not just the people who are against the sale,” Amo said.
Mike Anagnostakis, a Town of Newburgh Republican who fought the three-year effort by former County Executive Ed Diana to sell Valley View, argued passionately that privatizing Valley View would make only a small dent in the $60 million county budget deficit Neuhaus has identified. He noted that county officials have said that no longer having to fund the home would cut about $5 million or $6 million from the budget. How, he asked, would that forestall the massive layoffs Neuhaus has predicted as the alternative to selling Valley View?
“Anyone on this Legislature who believes that, I don’t know what to say to you,” Anagnostakis said.
Leigh Benton, a Town of Newburgh Republican, countered that the savings through privatization would grow with time, because the lingering cost of paying health insurance for retired Valley View workers would gradually decrease as retirees age and die.
Conversely, “every year you keep this going, you add more people who are retirees,” he said.
Kevin Hines, a Cornwall Republican, said he was keeping an open mind about whether to privatize Valley View or keep it in county hands.
“I still think it can be saved if all the parties come together with an agreement,” he said.
A handful of audience members spoke before legislators took up the hearing debate. County Democratic Chairman Jonathan Jacobson called the $60 million budget deficit Neuhaus has forecast for 2015 a “manufactured crisis” that required no hurried action, since the funding gap applies to next year’s budget.
“My suggestion is, let’s all take a deep breath, get the real numbers, and decide what to do with the 2015 budget,” Jacobson said.