By LIZ SKOCZYLAS
OBSERVER Mayville Bureau
There appears to be little change in the numbers of legislators planning to vote for or against the potential sale of the Chautauqua County Home.
Legislators will once again be called upon to decide whether to sell the county-owned skilled nursing facility, with a vote taking place Oct. 30. The legislative body recently heard from members of the potential purchasing group VestraCare, for a question and answer session.
In a straw poll conducted by the OBSERVER, 15 of the 19 legislators who responded answered they would be willing to sell the County Home to VestraCare. Three indicated they would not sell the home, and one indicated there had not been adequate time allowed to research VestraCare and had no answer at the time of the poll.
Of the six who did not respond to the straw poll, five had voted to not sell the home in the past, and emphasized they would not be interested in selling to any potential buyer. One had previously expressed they would sell the home.
In order to sell the home, the supermajority of legislators must be in favor of the sale. The supermajority vote would require 17 legislators to vote in favor of selling. This stems from a local law dating back to 1975, which requires a two-thirds vote in order to sell real property owned by the county.
"It's beating a dead horse, as far as I'm concerned," said Robert Stewart, R-Ellington. "It's a proven fact that it's costing the taxpayers money, and it's time to act."
COUNTY HOME SALE HISTORY
In February of 2009, a special committee of the County Legislature to Review the Current Practices and Sustainability of the Chautauqua County Home was created. In July, that same committee reported back to the full legislature that the home was financially viable, however it relied heavily on receiving Intergovernmental Transfer Funding in order to operate.
However, the following year, the home received no IGT funding from the county budget, causing it to run at a deficit of $1,788,542.
The following October, while legislators worked on the 2011 budget, the IGT funding became a hot topic of conversation. According to Chuck Nazzaro, D-Jamestown, who chaired the subcommittee, the County Home would be facing substantial losses for 2011 and 2012.
In July and August 2011, the county began to meet with marketing firms, as a first step toward privatizing the County Home. In September, it published a request for proposals in local newspapers.
The County Home was once again brought up by legislators during discussions on the 2012 budget, in October 2011. CSEA workers gathered outside the Gerace Office Building before the October legislature meeting in support of the County Home, with signs such as "Save Our County Home" and "Respect Your Elders." Just a month later, in November, the county chose Marcus & Millichap as the firm to begin marketing the County Home.
The legislature created a list of seven requirements they would like potential purchasers to meet when considering the County Home in February 2012. Just two months later, in April, the County Home's financial officer told the legislature's Audit and Control Committee that the home would run out of money by the middle of 2013.
The legislature was able to discuss two offers on the home in July 2012, one from Absolut Care, which offered a $1.6 million-a-year lease on the home with an option to buy outright for $16 million. The other, Altitude Health out of Chicago, offered $16.5 million in cash for the Dunkirk skilled nursing facility.
Although he was not given the go-ahead to proceed with a sale, County Executive Greg Edwards included the sale of the County Home in his 2013 budget presentation.
In October 2012, Edwards was given the OK by the legislature to begin contract negotiations with William Avi Rothner of Altitude Health Services. The legislature also passed its 2013 budget, which reflected a $250,000 reduction in IGT funding to the County Home.
THE FIRST VOTE
On Jan. 23, 2013, legislators voted for the first time whether they would be interested in selling the home to Altitude Health Services. Due to the supermajority rule, it failed by one vote.
The 16 legislators who voted in favor of selling the home were: Larry Barmore, R-Gerry; George Borrello, R-Irving; Fred Croscut, R-Sherman; Paula DeJoy, D-Jamestown; Tom Erlandson, D-Frewsburg; John Hemmer, R-Westfield; David Himelein, R-Findley Lake; Vince Horrigan, R-Bemus Point; Victoria James, D-Jamestown; Charles Nazzaro, D-Jamestown; Rod Rogers, G-Forestville; John Runkle, R-Stockton; Robert Stewart, R-Ellington; Mark Tarbrake, R-Ellicott; Paul Wendel, R-Lakewood; and legislative Chairman Jay Gould, R-Ashville.
Voting to keep the home were: Keith Ahlstrom, D-Dunkirk; Lori Cornell, D-Jamestown; William Coughlin, D-Fredonia; Thomas DeJoe, D-Brocton; Robert Duff, R-Sheridan; Shaun Heenan, D-Dunkirk; Timothy Hoyer, D-Jamestown; Bob Scudder, R-Fredonia; and Robert Whitney, D-Jamestown.
Following the failed vote, legislators were called upon to divulge their intent for the future of the home. The resolution, which was brought up at the request of Barmore and Croscut, asked whether legislators would be willing to sell the home to a different purchaser. This resolution passed 18-6 in favor of selling the home to a different purchaser.
The six voting not to sell the home under any circumstance were Ahlstrom, Coughlin, DeJoe, Heenan, Hoyer and Scudder. Duff did not vote, as he left following the failed resolution to sell to Altitude Health Services.
THE SECOND VOTE
Looking for a different outcome, legislators opted to take a second vote in February on selling the home to Rothner. However, the vote ended in a stalemate. Not a single legislator opted to vote differently than they had the first time they had voted on the subject, but votes to sell came up one short, with James absent from the February meeting.
A resolution to change the local law requiring a supermajority vote to sell real property in Chautauqua County was also discussed at length during the February meeting. However, it too failed, with only 10 legislators in favor of changing the law.
Voting in favor of the change were Barmore, Borrello, Croscut, Gould, Hemmer, Himelein, Horrigan, Stewart, Tarbrake and Wendel.
Rothner's offer was taken off the table shortly after the legislature's February meeting.
In July, Edwards confirmed another proposal was in the works. Edwards then announced Aug. 7 there was a new potential purchaser for the County Home. Richard Platschek of 10836 Temple Realty LLC and Chautauqua Restorative and Nursing Center LLC, like Rothner, had offered $16.5 million cash. Additionally, Platschek had offered a $1.65 million good faith deposit to the county.
Platschek was scheduled to meet with the legislature Aug. 21 for a question-and-answer session, however it was abruptly called off the night before, when Gould said he learned the $1.65 deposit had not been made to the county.
"Our prospective buyer did not complete his contract. There was not $1.65 million in escrow," Gould said at the time. "According to his contract, it should have been done in five days, and it was about 15 days. How do I know that he was serious about buying it? So, I canceled the meeting."
A week after the canceled meeting, legislators were able to hear a brief presentation from another group interested in the facility, VestraCare.
Following negotiations, a special meeting of the legislature was called for Oct. 9, to allow for a question and answer period between the legislature and VestraCare. A deposit of $1.65 million was wired Oct. 1 to the county's outside counsel.
"I think this is a great buyer," Gould said. "We're lucky to have him. I'm sure he will treat everybody fairly."
Four representatives of VestraCare attended the question-and-answer work session. Edward Farbenblum, owner, presented, along with Jaqueline Sylvia, administrator of Golden Hill Nursing Home; Hector Rodriguez, Golden Hill human relations; and Cookie Travis, Golden Hill administration director. Rodriguez is also a current Ulster County legislator, who was opposed to selling the Ulster County nursing home to Farbenblum.
Absent from the meeting were Hoyer. Duff, Cornell, Heenan, and Stewart. Barmore arrived late and DeJoe left early. Farbenblum said Cornell and Hoyer had sent their questions to him via email.
"It was very apparent to me that this group is pretty passionate about health care and nursing home care," Borrello said. "They're certainly directly involved in the operations of their nursing homes. Their track record seems to have a record of improving nursing homes that they've purchased, so I think they're the right people to do the job."
Borrello was not the only one leaving the work session impressed. Erlandson and Croscut both expressed their confidence in VestraCare.
"I'm very impressed with these perspective buyers," Erlandson said. "At their other facilities, they have done some very fine things. If they could purchase our home and do some of those things here in Chautauqua County, that would be wonderful."
"After hearing (from VestraCare) I certainly feel very comfortable that if I had a loved one that I wanted to put in the County Home, I'd be very comfortable with them giving care," Croscut said.
During the meeting, it was suggested a vote prior to the Nov. 5 election would be no different than the vote taken on whether to sell the home to Altitude Health Services in January. However, it was suggested a vote following the election would possibly yield different results.
"We have the right buyer. I think we need to move forward," Nazzaro said. "I would prefer the vote be postponed. There are a few legislators who would like a little bit more time to do their due diligence. I'm not sure what the rush is to have it by Oct. 30, but I think the potential buyer made it very clear that if we wanted to extend it past that date that would be negotiated."
Nazzaro's fellow Jamestown Democrat, DeJoy, expanded on his sentiment.
"I think Chuck Nazzaro's plea for a later vote was not so much because of a political reason on his part," DeJoy said. "I think that him and some of the other Democratic legislators that are in favor of the sale of the home, we're looking to try to possibly gain some time to maybe convince some of the Democrats that were on the fence to possibly reconsider. This is a good match. This would be a great match for our County Home."
On the other hand, Wendel called the suggestion to hold the vote following elections "a game of politics."
"I'm a member of the ad hoc committee," he said. "I think we've looked at everything. I think we have done the job we need to do. I think it's unfortunate right now it's being a game of politics. This is an election year, we know that. The people that get elected get elected to make the tough decisions."
Despite their vote being anonymous in the OBSERVER's poll, several legislators offered their thoughts on the potential purchasers, and wanted to let the public know their feelings.
"I did think (Wednesday) that this is a reputable buyer," Ahlstrom said. "My no vote is a reflection of that I still believe - and I guess it could change - but, I still believe that at this point in time that the residents in my district feel that the right thing to do is to keep it as a county facility. That's what I get elected to do, to reflect the voice of those people."
DeJoe has also been adamant about his vote to not sell the home throughout the process.
"I view the home as a moral and ethical situation, which is there as a safety net to help protect the welfare and well-being of those physically, mentally and financially less capable of taking care of themselves than the average person," he said. "That's my main concern."
Rogers said he felt as if the state of the County Home has been exaggerated on both sides, whether people are for or against the sale.
"It's not that the county is going to come crashing down if we don't sell it," he said. "I think it's the right thing to do, but it's not life and death for the county if we didn't sell."
Two Chautauqua County legislators traveled to visit another of Farbenblum's homes prior to VestraCare speaking to the legislature, and said they were impressed with what they saw on their visit. Horrigan and Barmore spent several hours touring the home.
"After visiting their nursing home near Binghamton last month and talking to the employees, residents, and families, I came away assured that the quality of nursing home care was excellent," Horrigan said. "Then after listening to the new ownership team at the legislature meeting Wednesday evening, I am convinced that Mr. Farbenblum and his team will actually expand health services and grow our jobs through the addition of assisted living options, as well as other health care specialized services. I was heartened to hear that they will be interviewing all of the current employees who apply and pass a background check and then adding nursing staff, while ensuring that the quality of care remains foremost in their decision-making process. Finally, it was also good to hear that they are nearing agreement with CSEA in their newly acquired Ulster County Nursing Home, which is the labor union that currently represents our Chautauqua County Home workforce."
Barmore agreed with Horrigan.
"After thoroughly investigating VestraCare, I find them to be a superior company for purchasing our home to keep it open and running smoothly," he said.
Although he has not visited a home owned by VestraCare's operators, Himelein said he was impressed with the presentation last week as well.
"I do think that the potential buyers gave us a lot of information (Wednesday)," Himelein said. "They seemed forthright to me. They handled themselves very well to some of the questioning that was asked of them. I have to take the word of Mr. Barmore and Mr. Horrigan, when they went down and visited one of (Farbenblum's) homes there that it appeared to be very well-kept and maintained, and everything seemed to be running smooth down there."
Hemmer said he believes it is in the best interest for the people of Chautauqua County if the home is sold.
I think this company will do a real good job of running the home," he said. "Thus, we will ensure that the skilled nursing facility beds and the jobs to take care of the people will be available to the people of Chautauqua County into the future."
Tarbrake agreed with the point Hemmer made.
"I think it's essential to the taxpayers of the county that we sell the home and keep people's jobs up there," Tarbrake said. "By selling the home, we're going to keep jobs."
CALL FOR A VOTE
A special meeting of the Chautauqua County Legislature has been called for Oct. 30 at 6:30 p.m. in the Legislative Chambers of the Gerace Office Building. At that time, legislators will discuss a resolution entitled "Authorizing Asset Purchase Agreement and Escrow Agreement for the Chautauqua County Home with Dunkirk Realty Holdings, LLC and Dunkirk Operating, LLC."
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