PSSSSST! WANNA BUY a nursing home? Have we got a deal for you. You’ll make a bundle on it. Piece of cake. So what if we’re losing our shirt on the place? F’geddaboudit. Not you, buddy. Hey, it’s 40 years old and almost like new. Pine Haven’s a steal!
That pretty much sums up the county’s strategy so far to solving the dilemma of the Pine Haven Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Philmont. Last week the Health and Medical Services Committee of the county Board of Supervisors split over a recommendation to issue a request for proposals from private entities interested in purchasing the county facility. So board Chairman Pat Grattan (R-Kinderhook) asserted his right to break the tie and send the matter to the full board for a vote next week.
This crisis, which suddenly materialized a few months ago, marks a 180-degree change from the county’s position less than a year ago, when supervisors supported construction of a new nursing home to replace the current Pine Haven. County officials have yet to offer a clear explanation of why the financial burden of operating the nursing home caught them by surprise, but the calendar suggests reasons for the rush to get rid of the place.
Mr. Grattan says that continuing to subsidize Pine Haven–$330,000 a month right now–will poke a $4-million hole in the county budget next year. He says that will increase the tax levy by 10%. Worse still, assuming supervisors don’t trim other parts of the budget, they’ll be forced to vote on whether to impose such an unpopular property tax hike. Keep in mind that this will be the last bill taxpayers in Columbia County receive from county government before the local elections in 2015, when many supervisors will face the voters.
The supervisors face a damned-if-they-do/damned-if-they-don’t choice. The alternative to a megaton tax hike might require deep cuts in Pine Haven’s budget. That wouldn’t win Mr. Grattan and the board many friends either. It might also prove difficult to reduce funding and still meet federal and state requirements for care of vulnerable Pine Have residents who can’t afford to go elsewhere. What’s a poor politician to do?
In voting to break the tie in the Health and Medical Services Committee Mr. Grattan invoked his authority to become an ad hoc member of that committee. His action serves as a metaphor for the way the whole situation has been handled so far: it’s ad hoc, making it up as you go along for this or that situation.
He’s doing his best to attract prospective buyers, implying that Pine Have could be a viable operation under the right circumstances while simultaneously assuring voters that its sale will solve the looming tax problem (which it might not). On the other hand he has to paint the bleakest possible picture of Pine Haven’s finances. After all, it’s clearly an outdated facility or the board wouldn’t have voted to spend $32 million to replace the home. Would it?
The rush to judgment on Pine Haven invites more problems than it solves. No matter how much bipolar political spin you put on it, there’s no responsible way to sell the nursing home before the adoption of the 2015 county budget. Please, supervisors, don’t make a bad situation worse.
The better approach would be to take some of the money no longer being spent to develop a new nursing home and spend it instead on a thorough, independent audit of Pine Haven and a concurrent study–with ample opportunity for public input–of all the options for the existing Philmont facility and their likely costs. Those are the proposals the county should be requesting now. Once we have that data, then we’ll know it if makes sense to hunt for a buyer and we’ll be able to tell potential buyers what they’ll be getting.
Mr. Grattan is right to sound the alarm over Pine Haven finances. But recognizing a problem does not entitle him or the board to dispose of a multi-million dollar county asset without an orderly and transparent process. That’s especially true when the asset provides an essential public service.
Gather the facts from independent sources; encourage citizen involvement; put a reasonable value on what we’ve got and then decide what action to take. Racing off willy-nilly in search of a buyer now makes no sense before we know Pine Haven’s true value. In the meantime there’s plenty of work to do trimming $4 million from the whole county budget.