Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Members of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's administration might have realized it had problems when its own real estate appraiser testified that it was "onerous and difficult" to get a variance that would allow the county to sell its nursing home in Yaphank.
Now, the 6-0 vote against the variance by the Brookhaven Zoning Board of Appeals is complicating Bellone's efforts to complete the $23 million sale of the 264-bed John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility, which officials say runs near-constant deficits.
The board won't make its reasoning public until Monday. But a review of the minutes of hearings that led up to last week's vote shows the Bellone proposal faced a rocky road.
Chairman Paul DeChance suggested that Bellone aides tried to politicize the process. Administration witnesses contradicted each other. And the administration's strategy to seek a fast fix forced officials to use a narrowly drawn hardship rule -- a high hurdle -- to justify the request for the special-use variance.
Paul Sabatino, lawyer for the county union opposing the sale and a former Suffolk chief deputy county executive, said he had expected to face an uphill battle.
"All things being equal, I would have thought that one municipality would give the benefit of the doubt to a sister municipality," he said. "But they [the administration] had tough criteria to meet, their testimony faltered and they ended up with a credibility issue."
In the aftermath of the vote, Bellone said the board -- made up of three Democrats, three Republicans, with a Conservative Party member serving as chairman -- made a "completely political decision."
Though Bellone, a Democrat, did not elaborate, his deputy, Jon Schneider, later explained: "Political doesn't necessarily mean partisan. We meant it was a decision that was not made on the merits. We were asking that a nursing home remain a nursing home and save taxpayers money -- that's a no-brainer."
At a November hearing, DeChance himself raised the issue of politics, asking why Bellone aides had twice called the zoning board to ask when board members' terms were up. DeChance called it "an indirect attempt to make a point to one or more board members" about their tenure, which "I find to be inappropriate."
Planning Commissioner Sarah Lansdale said the effort was to update files for future zoning seminars. DeChance said he doubted the explanation, noting that the Bellone aides hadn't mentioned the issue when they called.
Board members also focused on whether the county made its case that it couldn't make a reasonable return on its investment without the variance -- or, as critics claimed, allowed the facility to falter.
Foley's administrator, Kevin Carey, defended the county, but said under questioning that he had never been instructed to keep beds open. He acknowledged later that occupancy during his two years had dropped from 97 percent to 75 percent.
"I was actually hired to close it," he said of the facility.
"It just bothers me that the county made the decision to close the facility," said board member Terry Karl, a Democrat who was not present for the final vote. "It seems hard for the county to now claim a financial hardship without it being self-inflicted."
DeChance asked "whether a reasonable return for the county should just be dollars and cents or whether a reasonable return . . . could be the care . . . that it brings to county residents."
But county budget director Connie Corso said the nursing home has had deficits in 19 of 21 years. Taxpayers have shelled out a total of $115 million to run the home, she said.
"Even at 98 percent occupancy, the nursing home will still lose money," she testified.
The zoning board defeat leaves the county with several options, all lengthy.
Suffolk could challenge the board decision in court. It also could request rezoning of the tract, now approved for homes on one-acre plots, for nursing home use. But rezoning requires the approval of the appointed planning board and the elected town board, where Republicans have a 5-2 edge.
Bellone also could shut the nursing home, but that has a major downside: It would force Suffolk to give up rather than sell its valuable nursing home license, leaving only a vacant building to sell or use.
There also is the possibility of a lease or a management contract with the potential buyers until zoning issues and the pending lawsuit by the Association of Municipal Employees are resolved. But such a process could require a new request for proposals.
Whatever course Bellone picks, aides say it will come quickly. "We're looking at a decision in days, not weeks," Schneider said.