Editorial: After the Foley debacle, focus on future
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When the final resident moved out of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Home last month and the county surrendered its nursing home license to the state, a disastrous fiscal and political chapter for Suffolk County came to an end. But the end of that battle didn't close the book on the facility, or its potential impact on the county.
Two tasks remain: a full reflection on the missteps and machinations that led to the current state of affairs, and a search for the best possible outcome from the options remaining.
County Executive Patrick Halpin tried in 1990 to privatize the county infirmary that predated the nursing home, which was built in 1995. Current Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone and his predecessor, Steve Levy, agree that Foley was losing $12 million per year, yet had significant value for a private operator who was better at making a profit in the nursing home business. Levy nearly sold the 264-bed facility for $36 million before that deal was held up by employees, residents and legislators who opposed it, and then made economically unsupportable by state Medicaid reimbursement cuts.
Levy, a Republican, said he would close Foley if he couldn't sell it, but left office before doing either. Bellone, a Democrat, said the same upon becoming county executive.
But opponents of a sale or closure didn't think Bellone would pull the trigger, and believed they could stop him in court if he tried.
Neither belief was entirely unfounded. In his 18 months in office, Bellone has had a tough time holding the line on his deals and dictates, exemplified by an endlessly evolving contract with the county police union.
In his attempt to sell Foley, Bellone cut corners in seeking and finding a $23-million offer from established private operators of nursing homes. But that, despite the imperfect process, was the best option for a county facing a $250-million deficit over the next few years.
So Bellone deserves, at most, a small fraction of the blame.
But the real culprits here were two county legislators -- John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) -- and Paul Sabatino, former counsel to the legislature who wrote the county law that created high hurdles for a sale of Foley. True believers in public ownership they fought the sale in court and pulled the strings behind the scenes. But they miscalculated -- costing some 200 residents their home and more than 140 workers their union jobs.
So persuasive were these opponents of a Foley sale, and later, a lease alternative, that when the leaders of the Association of Municipal Employees, the union representing Foley workers, recommended a deal that let the facility be operated privately and guaranteed them their jobs for at least 18 months, the members voted it down 137-9.
At least $30 million has been lost. The home is closed and the residents relocated, some now much farther away from their families. The financial bleeding is stanched, the valuable operating license surrendered, the future uncertain.
The 175,000-square-foot Foley building, set on 12 acres, is still worth a lot. The question is how the county can best take advantage of its value.
Bellone is wisely pursuing dual paths. The county is trying to evaluate how much money the property and building might garner from a sale. At the same time, multiple county departments are studying the facility for an alternate appropriate and economical use.
With Suffolk's jails overflowing with nonviolent drug offenders, each costing the county $250 a day, a rehabilitation center might work. County officials say the building's dormitory-type construction might also work as a homeless shelter.
Until it's known how much buyers might pay, no one can say whether Foley should be sold or kept. The possibility of getting full value for it as an ongoing business stocked with vital equipment is gone, and pointlessly so.
Hopefully, the selection of the best of the remaining, lesser options can go forward with less politicking and more common sense than was shown in throwing away the best one.