Suffolk County is steadily moving toward closure of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility, with floors being emptied of patients and employees beginning to be laid off.
County Executive Steve Bellone is targeting June 30 for transferring the last patients to other long-term care centers, which would allow remaining staff to be cut and for Suffolk's nursing home operating license to be returned to the state.
All deals to keep Foley open -- either in public or private hands -- are off the table, said Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider. This comes as opponents continue to distribute petitions and rally weekly outside the Yaphank facility.
"We're at the point of no return," Schneider said. "We're committed to closing as quickly and efficiently as possible."
The once-264-bed facility is down to 126 residents, and about 157 employees remain, from a high of 200. Sixteen workers have been laid off or reassigned, Schneider said.
The administration also hopes to soon return the $800,000 deposit from Israel and Samuel Sherman, the private nursing home operators who last year agreed to buy Foley for $23 million. The deal stalled after being challenged in court by opponents, including the union for nursing home workers and two dissenting lawmakers.
Plaintiffs claimed the county failed to follow proper procedures in conducting the sale, and a Brookhaven zoning appeals board delivered another blow when it denied Bellone the special permit he needed to transfer ownership of Foley to private hands. That led Bellone to propose leasing the facility to the Shermans -- but that plan failed last month when nursing home workers nixed a deal to drop their opposition to privatization in exchange for an 18-month wage guarantee.
"My impression is the workers feel there's a possibility for some kind of last-minute reprieve," said Michael Finland, executive vice president of Foley workers' union, the Association of Municipal Employees. "But the county has very effectively conveyed their intent on proceeding with the closure process, and they haven't given me any indicators that they will change their mind."
Michael Balboni, a spokesman for the Shermans, said the facility's continued loss of patients means that taking it over now would likely be against his clients' "financial incentive," even if a deal was somehow revived.
Bellone has long said it costs the county $1 million a month to operate Foley, money that only adds to a projected $250 million budget gap through 2014. Opponents counter that Bellone never attempted to reduce his costs by filling beds and running Foley efficiently.
But even Bellone's loudest critics say they've stopped advising patients to hold out hope for Foley to stay open.
"He's making a bad decision," said Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley). "But the way he sounds, I'm not telling people to hold off if they find something that works for them."
Still, Browning and another lawsuit plaintiff, Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), said they believe many patients will be forced to find alternatives.
The hardship on patients and workers -- and the hit to the county's budget from closure -- is something that opponents of Foley's privatization must face, Schneider said.
"Their take-away is a $30 million hit to Suffolk County taxpayers, 200 people out of work and 200 families forced to move loved ones," he said.
But Kennedy said Bellone is to blame for pitching a "bad deal." He predicted that county legislators who voted in favor of it would face the issue in re-election campaigns this fall.
"He's put the well-being and success of many legislators in jeopardy," Kennedy said, defending efforts to block the sale and keep Foley in public hands. "I certainly have no remorse, and I don't feel my actions were in any way improper."