County nursing home sale challenged by lawmakers
The details surrounding Suffolk's deal to sell its nursing home came under great scrutiny Thursday, with lawmakers grilling top aides to County Executive Steve Bellone on everything from the buyers' record to the legality of the process that uncovered them.
Chief Deputy County Executive Regina Calcaterra and County Attorney Dennis Cohen appeared before the legislature's Health Committee to explain various aspects of the $23 million agreement their administration has with the for-profit operators for the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility.
Among the details they revealed under questioning: buyers Israel and Samuel Sherman -- who operate 13 nursing homes statewide -- are likely to receive tax incentives as part of the deal, and while they must keep Foley's remaining patients and offer its employees jobs, they're not contractually bound to keep the facility itself open for any period of time.
"They're buying the facility to operate it as a nursing home," Cohen said, explaining why he didn't think that provision was necessary.
Regardless, Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) and John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), the biggest proponents of keeping Foley in municipal hands, assailed several other components of the deal, beginning with the physical therapist that ultimately brought the Shermans forward. The town hired DeGere Physical Therapy Services of Lynbrook to market the nursing home after approaching county officials in March.
DeGere, who has done work at Foley and some of the Shermans' facilities, received a consulting contract via a waiver that bypassed competitive bids. Browning and Kennedy questioned the legality of that contract, because DeGere is not a licensed real estate brokerage firm and worked both for the buyers and sellers.
"It's absolute, outright lack of authority," Kennedy said.
But Cohen said the transaction was the sale of a business, not of real estate, despite it including 14 acres of adjoining land. Whether lawmakers succeed in blocking payment for the consulting contract, Cohen said it wouldn't affect the overall deal.
Browning and Kennedy also helped block immediate acceptance of a $17 million state health grant that Bellone would use to pay down the county's nursing home debt. The lawmakers argued the administration initially told the state it would use the grant in conjunction with keeping the facility in county hands.
But Calcaterra said her office later received approval from the governor to shift its purpose. She also fired back at criticism that the administration never fully considered proposals to keep the nursing home open under a private-public partnership.
"The county executive never went into this with a closed mind," Calcaterra said. "He was very open-minded and wanted to see what alternatives we could find."