After hearing hours of impassioned public testimony that ranged from scripture to legalese, the Suffolk County Legislature voted shortly after midnight Friday to approve the tentative sale of the John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Home to Kenneth Rozenberg, who runs private nursing homes.
“This is the hardest vote, for me personally,” said Legis. William Lindsay (D-Holbrook), the presiding officer, who had been involved in intense negotiations behind the scenes with County Executive Steve Levy. The vote was 12-4, with Legis. Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) abstaining because his wife works at the home and the Sixth District seat is vacant. But the vote still requires court approval, as a lawsuit intended to block the home’s closure is still pending.
Levy had pressed for the $36 million sale of the 264-bed public facility in Yaphank to plug a hole in his budget and save the county millions of dollars in future operations costs. Another factor impacting the vote was that the county executive tied the sale to a labor agreement reached Wednesday with Cheryl Felice, president of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees (SCAME), whose 6,500 members had been working without a contract since 2009.
During the proceedings, the county executive’s deputies also reminded the legislators that Rozenberg was threatening to walk away from his offer, which would obligate the county to refund his nearly $2 million down payment.
Ed Dumas, the chief deputy county executive, said legislators’ failure to approve the sale would result in “a fiscal nightmare” and force the layoff of 800 public workers to balance the budget.
To win approval for the measure, which looked like it was going to be rejected an hour before the final vote, Levy agreed to use some proceeds to fund $2.3 million in sweeteners to subsidize 240 Foley workers’ salaries for at least a year at current levels and guarantee that patients with the most severe needs wouldn’t be relocated by the private operator to cut costs.
“I truly resent being put in this position,” said Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), who joined both Democrats and Republicans in approving the resolution to put the facility up for sale. “If this had been the Steve Levy Press Facility, he would have found the money.”
After intense negotiations between the legislators and the county executive’s staff, the resolution’s language was amended to make the sale contingent on further clarification from the courts.
On Wednesday, the full panel of a state Appellate Division had issued a temporary injunction blocking closure of the home, which had reversed an earlier decision allowing layoffs to begin. Anton Borovina, an attorney for the plaintiffs, had filed suit on behalf of three nursing home residents and a worker.
Sixteen workers, including cooks and maintenance personnel, had gotten the notices before President’s Day weekend. More layoffs were slated to begin March 6, but an Appellate judge put a stop to it pending the full panel’s ruling.
During the public portion of the proceedings, Borovina argued before the legislators that the Appellate ruling extended the injunction’s reach to cover the closure and the sale. Joseph E. Macy, an attorney representing the county executive, countered that the ruling was much narrower, only blocking Foley’s closure.
Paul Sabatino, an attorney assisting Borovina in the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs, told the Press that based on the Appellate Division’s rulings so far, he thought the sale would not pass muster.
The special session had begun at 3:30 p.m., with a packed auditorium. By the time the vote was held, which required the imposition of the Cinderella law to keep the legislature in session past midnight, there were still about 30 to 40 onlookers, most of them workers at the nursing home and their families.
As they straggled out into the darkness, Mary Fredette, a nurse at Foley for 21 years, told the Press she felt “absolutely betrayed” by her union president.
Cheryl Felice, the SCAME head, told the Press, “I think everybody knew this was inevitable. The vote creates some finality to a very difficult situation.”
The facility’s fate has been up in the air for at least three years, when the sale was first proposed, and given the legal wrangling still to come, it’s not clear when the issue will be fully resolved. For now, the workers and residents at the nursing home know the lights will stay on a little longer.