EDITORIAL: What’s next for Pine Haven, II

THE “FOR SALE BY OWNER” sign was nailed to the wall at the Pine Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Philmont with the decision last week by the county Board of Supervisors to issue a request for proposals from private owners. This follows the script repeated over and over: Get rid of this turkey or we’ll have a double-digit tax increase.

You can’t blame the board for wanting to spare property owners from such an unacceptable hit. The chairman of the board, Kinderhook Supervisor Pat Grattan (R), says Pine Haven will soon owe the county $4-million based on the money the county advances the nursing home for its operating expenses. Pine Haven could also damage the county credit rating.

It might make more sense to shut the place down, except for all the bad publicity if the county really did toss a hundred or so elderly people with nowhere else to go out onto Route 217. Better to sell it to the highest bidder. The catch is that to avoid a tax hike it has to be sold before the board adopts the annual budget.

Now, look at the calendar. The draft for the request for proposals (RFP) won’t be ready until August. For the sake of argument, assume the supervisors dispense with debate and public input on a document. All it does is lay out terms for the sale of a multi-million-dollar facility that belongs to the people of Columbia County. So let’s say the RFP is ready to go by September 1.

How much time does the industry need to respond? If you already have a buyer in mind, you could require an early deadline–something like 30 days. That would discourage other bidders. But you’d think the county would want as many bidders as possible. That means giving buyers at least 60 days, which brings us to the beginning of November.

Last year the county’s tentative budget was finished and ready for consideration by the full Board of Supervisors on November 15. If the schedule remains roughly the same this fall, the board would have two weeks to determine the best bid and to then close a deal that has revenue from the sale of Pine Haven in the 2015 county budget. What if state regulators gum up the works? What if some party files suit asking the courts to decide whether the sale was properly handled?

These variables make you wonder how the board could possibly dispose of Pine Haven before it impacts the 2015 budget. But even if there’s no deal, we aren’t condemned to a 10% tax levy increase next year. After all, we are talking about $4 million out of a total county budget of $148 million. Maybe not even that much.

The day after the full Board of Supervisors voted to issue the RFP, Shawn Morse, an official with the union that represents Pine Haven employees, presented a very different picture of Pine Haven finances. He gave examples of county practices that inflate or distort the losses.

No one from county government challenged what he said. As a union representative, Mr. Morse is not a neutral party. But there are unanswered questions. Consider the statement Mr. Grattan made in his November 15, 2013 cover letter with the current county budget. In the letter he flagged Pine Haven as a financial trouble spot but went on to say that the budget “shows the revenues at the nursing home equaling its expenses.” The problem he identifies is not Pine Haven’s operations. It’s the snail’s pace at which the state and federal governments reimburse the county legitimate expenses.

Delayed reimbursements force the county to “lend” Pine Haven the money from the county’s dwindling piggybank, called the fund balance. There’s a similar problem with two other county departments–Social Services and Human Services–both of which also “owe” the county six-figure amounts. So far, no one has suggested selling either of those agencies. The point is that the county is “lending” to itself for public services.

Maybe the chronic late-payment policies of Albany and Washington will make it impossible for the county to operate Pine Haven. But as citizens, we can’t know that without an independent analysis of the way local officials account for the true costs of the nursing home. It’s not Pine Haven that needs an independent audit, it’s the county.

County officials could decide now to conduct this analysis or they could hide from the facts and leave it up to the Offices of State Comptroller and Attorney General to determine what’s happening here.

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