The final showdown on the $36-million sale of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility may not come until the Aug. 17 Suffolk Legislature meeting, but the fate of what once was known as the county almshouse may have been sealed last week.
The board of directors of the county's largest union - Association of Municipal Employees - Tuesday decided against proposing a concession package that might keep the 264-bed Yaphank complex in county hands.
Cheryl Felice, AME president, acknowledged the board's decision may bring the sale "closer than it was before," but she said the board had to represent the interests of all 7,000 members who have been without a contract since Dec. 31, 2008, not just the 249 nursing-home workers.
"I think the board's decision was a message to concentrate on the negotiation for the 7,000 members that remain," Felice said. "We'll never stand in support of the sale, but we'll also not legally challenge the sale if it goes through."
The union board's overriding concern, said Felice, was that any nursing home concessions could set a precedent in ongoing contract talks for all county workers. In particular, she said the county's proposal of a 40-hour workweek at the nursing home could lead to other workers giving up their 37 1/2-hour workweek.
Still, some nursing home workers feel abandoned. "They never came into our building and asked the employees what kind of concessions they'd be willing to make," said Christopher DeStio, a housekeeping supervisor who's worked at Foley 13 years. "Some officials have extended an olive branch to the nursing home, but the union officials have not grabbed it."
Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), who created an oversight committee last year in a bid to make Foley more financially viable, said the union stand makes saving the facility much tougher.
"I have not made up my mind how I'll vote and I'll probably not make up my mind til the last minute," Lindsay said. "But if there were last-minute concessions made to make it run more efficiently, it would go a long way keeping me on board to protect the place."
Beyond concessions, some officials say the union is looking at the larger picture - what happens without the net $20 million in revenue Suffolk officials say the county would get from a sale, and the $8 million to $10 million annually it now costs to run the complex.
"If we don't get that money, it's going to have to come from somewhere and it could mean that 200, 300 or 400 people may lose their jobs," said Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip). "I think they decided to look at what is best for the overall membership."
However, nursing home advocates have not given up, noting efforts to privatize the home were defeated in the 1990s before Foley was built. "It's never over," said DeStio, adding the deal could still unravel as details face greater scrutiny, or if County Executive Steve Levy's relations with lawmakers sour further. "The numbers have to be questioned. Saying they'll [the county] net $20 million is a joke."
Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), who had hoped to keep the home county-run, relying on either an economic rebound or revenue from a Shinnecock casino, said, "I'm still on the fence, but AME's decision is tipping me in the other direction."
Levy said he's encouraged by AME's stand but is not declaring victory. "Deep down I think all legislators know what needs to be done, but then politics comes into play," said Levy. "But I think our chances are much better this week than last."