By Joe Mahoney
---- — A plan aimed at derailing the privatization of the Otsego Manor nursing home was dealt a setback Monday when Otsego County Rep. James Powers — who heads a key committee on the county board — pronounced the proposal dead on arrival.
Powers, R-Butternuts, argued that the proposal outlined last week by Rep. John Kosmer, D-Fly Creek, is unworkable and unaffordable — and amounts to an act of “grandstanding” by its architect.
“To raise people’s hopes with this kind of grandstanding is really poor representation,” Powers said of the Kosmer proposal.
Powers, who is the chairman of the county board’s Negotiations Committee, which handles labor contracts with unionized county workers, said he had no intention of convening his panel to discuss the proposal.
Kosmer has indicated that the first step of his multipronged plan would be a new round of labor negotiations intended to convince the union to make significant concessions that could help reduce the county’s spiraling public subsidy for the 174-bed Manor.
If the union agreed to givebacks, the plan calls for county residents to then be polled on whether they would support raising the current state and county combined sales tax rate of 8 percent to 8.25 percent. If county residents backed the sales tax increase, legislation authorizing the hike would then be pushed at the state Capitol.
Powers said he objected to the sales tax increase.
“That money would be coming out of Otsego County residents’ pockets, when they are broke already,” he said. “I don’t know who he thinks he’s kidding. But he’s not kidding me.”
He noted Kosmer was among the representatives who last fall voted in favor of privatizing the Manor.
“Now he wants to be the hero,” Powers said.
Kosmer said he does not believe that the opposition from Powers will prove fatal to his proposal.
“I don’t see how the proposal is grandstanding,” he said. “But that’s his call. My call is to put a proposal out there. It’s for others to speed it up, or slow it down.”
Kosmer said that time is of the essence if his plan were to be considered by the county board. That is because the component calling for a higher sales tax would need approve from state lawmakers this spring, he said, while the proposed union givebacks would need to be taken up almost immediately.
Kosmer and Powers have butted heads a number of times, usually over natural gas drilling, with the Republican in support of shale gas development while the Democrat is opposed to it.
Kosmer’s Manor plan also met with a chilly reception from Rep. Kathleen Clark, R-Otego, the chairwoman of the Board of Representatives. While she refrained from knocking Kosmer’s motives, Clark said she questioned the viability of the proposal and noted she was hesitant to take a path of “ruling by poll.”
“We can’t be derailed by something that is a slim possibility,” she said. She also pointed out that revenue from an increased sales tax could not be specifically dedicated to the county’s subsidy to the nursing home.
Mark Kotzin, spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association, the union representing the Manor workers, said he could not foresee his organization asking members to make concessions when there is no certainty the sales tax could be boosted.
“It is almost like putting the cart before the horse,” he said. However, if the proposal were to be presented to CSEA at the negotiating table, “we would look at it,” Kotzin said.
County Treasurer Dan Crowell said the Kosmer plan “has an urgency to it, because the county board has already begun the process of trying to privatize the facility.
“I take it very seriously, even though there are some challenging obstacles to it,” he said. “But that’s all the more reason to put our foot on the accelerator, to explore those issues quickly.”
Faced with the nursing home’s deteriorating financial condition and projections for an escalating taxpayer subsidy, the board has indicated it wants to sell the Manor to the highest “responsible” bidder. An advocate for Manor residents, Maureen Culbert of Springfield, said she has amassed 1,800 signatures from local residents who indicated they want the home to remain a property of the county. Union workers and some patients have said they fear privatizing the Manor will lead to reductions in the quality of patient care.