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Suffolk blame game surrounds Foley nursing home

A Suffolk legislative committee on Thursday sent a

A Suffolk legislative committee on Thursday sent a bill to deny funding to the firm overseeing closure of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility to the full county legislature, where approval is uncertain. Credit: Doug Kuntz

As he set Suffolk's public nursing home on the path to closing, County Executive Steve Bellone took one last shot early this spring at the controversial privatization that he just couldn't seem to complete.

The main obstacles, as he saw it, were two county legislators, John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) and Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), who appeared to have the trust of employees at the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility. The workers were about to vote on whether to drop their union's lawsuit blocking a sale in exchange for job promises from the buyers.

"Tell them, 'We need to move forward and allow this sale to proceed.' " Bellone recalled telling Kennedy and Browning. Instead, the lawmakers "held a political rally four days later," Bellone said.

That rally, on April 13 outside the Yaphank home, featured patients' and workers' pleas to keep the facility in county hands.

The Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees, which represented Foley workers, for more than a decade, had fought privatization efforts, and last year had filed suit in State Supreme Court against Bellone's move to sell the 264-bed home to Israel and Samuel Sherman.

But by April, AME leaders had become convinced that Bellone was serious about closing. The union endorsed a deal in which the Shermans agreed to operate Foley under a lease, and pledged to keep all workers at their current pay for at least 18 months if the plaintiffs dropped their suit and abandoned efforts to block the home's transfer. The deal was subject to approval by the Foley employees.

"While AME worked vigilantly to explore alternatives, this assuredly was a Sisyphean endeavor," union executive vice president Michael Finland said.

Kennedy and Browning opposed privatization until the end. But they disputed Bellone's allegation that they told the Foley staff what to do.

"They're not sheep, and we did not give them false hope," Browning said.

On April 19, Foley workers rejected dropping the suit by a vote of 137-9. Bellone opted for closure, citing the facility's $1-million-a-month losses given Suffolk's $250 million budget hole through 2014. On June 20, the last patient was moved, ending a protracted debate.

Pointing fingers

The closing represented a breakdown in a county government that almost always found compromise on major issues, and has left hard feelings on both sides -- each blames the other. It has also left a 175,000-square-foot building on 12 acres that officials acknowledge will cost "tens of thousands of dollars" a month to maintain as it's readied for sale.

In his first interview on the issue, Bellone, a Democrat, blamed Foley's shutdown on Browning and Kennedy, describing them as "ideologues" who wouldn't accept that many counties in the state are shedding their public nursing homes for financial reasons.

"You had a small handful of people who essentially have cost county taxpayers $30 million, cost 180 people their jobs and disrupted the lives of 200 patients and their families for no good reason," Bellone said.

The $30 million figure combines the $23 million Suffolk was to receive in the sale with the operating costs for the months the facility stayed open as the lawsuit -- which alleged that the administration didn't follow procedure in putting the deal together -- was fought.

Browning and Kennedy, who were also lawsuit plaintiffs, said Bellone is entirely at fault. He dismissed "viable" public-private partnership offers with nonprofits and proposed an "illegal" sale last summer, they said. Bellone then tried to salvage the situation, the legislators said, with a deal workers feared would give the buyers leeway to go back on promises to maintain their wages.

"He told me, 'You're their leader,' " Browning recalled of her meeting with Bellone in April. "I said, 'These people have minds of their own, they have opinions of their own.' "

Kennedy said: "It's indicative of the way the executive must view our civil servants, that we needed to lead them by the hand, like children."

Opponents of Bellone's decision said Foley was worth its subsidy because it cared for patients typically turned away by for-profit facilities. Bellone said the buyers' willingness to take all patients disproved that.

The opponents also said Bellone could have eliminated operating losses if he'd filled all of the nursing home's beds -- roughly 200 were occupied last year. Doing that could have cut losses from $12 million a year to as low as $3 million, legislative budget analysts estimated.

"This is on Bellone," said Andrea Brame, a certified nurses' aide at Foley for 16 years before being laid off in early June.

Still, she expressed regret about the vote that spelled the nursing home's end. Brame rejected the deal on the belief its wording gave the Shermans an out to renege on wage and benefits promises. But she acknowledged thinking Foley never would actually close its doors.

"It's been going on for so many years," said Brame, of Shirley. "You'd hear it was closing and then it wouldn't. After a while, we got used to thinking that would always be the case."

Brame's union, the 8,500-member AME, had fought Foley's privatization since former County Executive Patrick Halpin's push to turn over operations to a nonprofit in the late 1980s to early 1990s.

The union, the county's largest, also opposed former County Executive Steve Levy's proposals to sell or close Foley in 2010 and 2011, and continued that stance in its lawsuit against Bellone's planned sale.

With Browning and Kennedy still firmly opposed to privatization, in mid-April AME leaders agreed to back a lease deal with the Shermans. Finland said the union, which held informational meetings on the proposal, didn't pressure Foley employees to support the arrangement, and was prepared to accept their final decision.

"I know employees were hoping for a last-minute reprieve, but that doesn't appear to be the case at this point," Finland said last month, after the workers' vote against dropping the suit.

Finland remains disappointed about the closing.

"The role of government should be overseeing public health and safety," he said. "By carrying out this decision, we're missing the mark on addressing public health. By closing the doors of Foley, we have finalized a protracted situation.

"This is not the legacy that John J. Foley wanted to leave behind," Finland said of the late Democratic county legislator from Blue Point, who advocated for public health services.

Ex-county execs weigh in

Halpin, a Democrat, said in an interview that no matter what Bellone and the Shermans proposed -- whether promising to keep patients or workers -- opponents were not going to believe it.

"They were like lemmings marching off the cliff and drowning in the sea," Halpin said. "And it's unfortunate because the patients didn't need to be disrupted."

Levy, a Republican, said "the employees ended up being pawns, emotionally vulnerable to these legislators, who led them on a path to nowhere."

But Browning and Kennedy said any criticism of them as obstructionists is meant to distract from Bellone's mistakes.

Records show the administration, in conducting the sale, failed to follow its own competitive bidding procedures, hired an unlicensed broker who worked for the buyers, and obtained an appraisal after the sales contract was signed.

"My only regret is that he was able to bamboozle 10 legislators into voting for something absolutely illegal and void on its face," Kennedy said.

Bellone said in March that he "reached out to everyone, we pursued every opportunity possible in a limited time frame, we worked to build consensus, and then we made a decision to move forward with a plan. Our only interest throughout this process has been to help get the county through its financial crisis . . . "

Bellone later said that criticizing the process distracted from the fact his sale would have kept patients in beds, employees in their jobs and provided the county with $23 million: "You shouldn't be devoted to the process over the outcome. And that's what happened here."

A key lawmaker who supported privatization said he understood both sides. Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), the health committee chairman, said of Bellone, "I think he [Bellone] assessed the situation, made a painful decision and moved forward quickly. I don't think anyone took him at his word."

Spencer said Bellone "did a good job" overall, but questioned whether Foley was given a chance to succeed. He called the sale process flawed.

"It was definitely sloppy, and left a lot of room for people to challenge," Spencer said. "But the other side at times vilified anyone involved in the process. At the end of the day, passion and emotion took over."

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