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Bellone State of County speech threatens nursing home sale

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delivers his State

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone delivers his State of the County address. (Feb. 19, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said last night that he will try to close the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility in Yaphank if opponents of a stalled proposal to sell it don't relent soon.

Bellone in his annual State of the County address urged county legislators and union leaders who have blocked the $23 million sale of the nursing home to private operators to quickly find "common ground" with him.

Suffolk is spending $1 million a month to subsidize the 264-bed home, adding to the county's estimated deficit of $80 million to $125 million. Bellone suggested the nursing home could become an election issue.

"Who among you, my colleagues, are prepared to face voters in November and tell them, 'I voted to continue spending your tax dollars on subsidizing a facility that the private sector stands ready to operate at no cost to you?' " said Bellone, a Democrat.

"There is still time, but time is short," he added. "I extend my hand to those who continue to block this sale to reach common ground on a reasonable plan to allow this sale to proceed so we can prevent closure and protect our taxpayers."

In his address at the legislative auditorium in Hauppauge, Bellone also announced efforts to determine the best ways to use federal superstorm Sandy aid. But Bellone devoted the most time to the nursing home issue.

The county legislature narrowly approved Bellone's deal to sell the nursing home to Israel and Samuel Sherman. But opponents, led by county legislators Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) and Suffolk's Association of Municipal Employees, filed suit to block the sale. They say a private operator would not provide the same care as the county, especially for long-term patients who cost more to serve.

Kennedy bristled at Bellone's near-ultimatum on Foley.

"I thought it was confrontational and unnecessary," Kennedy said, noting his criticism that the administration didn't follow procedure in finding the buyers. "Maybe because he realizes his deal is that bad."

But Legis. Wayne Horsley, (D-Babylon), supported Bellone's call for urgent action. "I think it was a realistic approach," Horsley said. "He doesn't have many other options at this point."

Last month, Brookhaven's Zoning Board of Appeals also denied a special operating permit the county needs to transfer the facility to private hands.

Supporters of the sale argue that the Shermans would keep all Foley patients and retain all of the facility's 200 workers. But with the sale path blocked at least temporarily, some lawmakers have suggested that the county should instead lease the facility, allowing it to remain in government hands for now.

Bellone wasn't specific in the speech about the "common ground" he is seeking. But in an interview beforehand, he said a lease with the Shermans could allow the home to continue operating while negotiations over a permanent solution continued. Bellone said he was working on a closing plan that he could file quickly with the state, which would have to approve a sale.

"This is not my preferred choice," he said of closing the home "The only thing worse would be to continue to ask taxpayers to subsidize this facility to the tune of millions of dollars at a time when we have no money."

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