Weathering charges of duplicity and secrecy against the Hein administration, and warnings they were acting prematurely and in ignorance, a bare majority of county legislators approved the sale of the Golden Hill Health Facility to a county-run limited development corporation (LDC) on Monday, December 5.
The approving 17 votes (14 against) were almost evenly divided between majority Republicans and Democrats. Jack Hayes of Gardiner was in Florida on vacation. Hector Rodriguez excused himself because of potential conflicts of interest. Rodriguez works for Kingston developer Steve Aaron who has expressed interest in partnering with developers of the 27-acre site. Then, by a 19-14 margin, it approved County Executive Michael Hein’s $363 million budget.
Hein was not available for comment on Monday night on what appears to be a signature accomplishment by his administration, but in a statement released Tuesday, he said “Last night, the Ulster County Legislature took an important and bipartisan step in keeping the nursing home open.” He lauded what he sees as “a clearly defined path that will improve both the stability and sustainability to the facility.”
Contacted on Tuesday, Hein said while some of the remarks by opponents were “unfortunate,” he looked forward to a cooperative process with the legislature.
“These are difficult, emotional decisions for all us,” he said, “but in the end we share the goals of providing quality health care for our seniors while addressing the concerns of taxpayers.”
The debate, which stretched through afternoon meetings of legislative committees, conferences among lawyers and then well into the night at the special budget meeting of the legislature, was at times rancorous. Some legislators, like Jim Maloney of Ulster and Carl Belfiglio of Esopus, expressed bewilderment after learning that while a special legislative task force headed by Walter Frey of Saugerties was investigating options on Golden Hill last year, the county executive had secretly engaged an Albany law firm to work out the details of a limited development corporation to sell the facility.
“It has been a long process, most of it done in secret,” Maloney said.
But Hein has said it was the legislature’s inability or refusal to make a decision — and his need for up to $8 million to plug a 2012 budget gap — that forced his hand. Hein argues that his is the “compassionate solution” to the Golden Hill controversy in that it will keep the facility running for the next two years and then under private ownership. Hein said the county could not continue to fund operating deficits at the 40-year old nursing home that next year he predicts will top $5 million. The facility, which some consultants consider outdated, may also need more than $40 million in repairs.
Legislators and speakers on behalf of Golden Hill argued that a for-profit operation would not provide the level of care patients in the 280-bed facility have been given for almost two generations.
But the majority, with Hein’s prompting, decided the legislature had been given sufficient time to make a decision and that the time for debate was over. Ten legislators who voted on the Hein proposal will not be back next year.
A last-ditch effort by county comptroller Elliott Auerbach failed to change a vote which many had predicted was pre-ordained. Auerbach brought in Kenneth Bond, his special legal consultant and an authority on LDCs, to argue that the legislature was acting without sufficient information and that it should delay its decision into next year.
Ken Ronk of Wallkill was among the many who rejected that notion. “We would be forcing this decision on the next legislature, kicking the can down the road,” he said. Ronk will be the Republican majority leader of that legislature.
Susan Zimet of New Paltz and Don Gregorius of Woodstock were among those who agreed with Bond that the county could designate any asset — including Golden Hill — to raise the $8 million Hein says he needs to balance his budget. Both argued that the legislature itself should form and control an LDC to pursue the sale of surplus properties. It was a measure of the progress of this years-long controversy from avoidance to decision that nobody advanced the notion of the county continuing ownership and operation of Golden Hill. The debate was almost entirely over the best way to construct an LDC — an entity that can manage property and borrow money without voter approval.
Two seldom-shows over the past three months — retiring legislator Frank Felicello of Marlborough and the defeated Frey — appeared and split their votes. Felicello argued vehemently for Golden Hill. Frey said nothing during the regular legislature meeting but chaired a special informational meeting of his Health and Human Services Committee prior to the regular meeting. Committee vice chairman Rob Parete of Accord ran that meeting, with Frey saying little.
Frey’s special legislative committee shut down in July without making any recommendations among the nine options it considered. Hein presented his plan in October.
The budget vote, with Rodriguez rejoining his colleagues, was an anti-climatic affirmative vote, at 19-14. Hein’s $363 million budget was approved with only minor changes.
The process now moves to the naming of a seven-member LDC board of directors. Three members will be chosen by the legislature and three by the executive from a pool of candidates recruited by the executive. None can be public office holders. Those six will elect a seventh from Hein’s pool.
The LDC will have the authority to market and sell the 27-acre Golden Hill site. It does not include other county nearby properties like the abandoned jail, the bus terminal or the mental health building.++