The Niagara County Legislature voted, 13-6, Tuesday night to close Mount View Health Facility. The doors of the county-owned nursing home will shut sometime before June 30, 2008.
The move means that about 200 county employees, more than 11 percent of the county work force, will lose their jobs. About 130 patients will be transferred to other facilities, as yet unselected, within 50 miles of Lockport, in line with Medicaid regulations.
None of the 13 legislators who voted for the shutdown spoke up in favor of it during Tuesday's hourlong meeting. All the talking was done by opponents of the closure.
The only member of the Republican-controlled majority caucus who broke ranks to vote against the plan was W. Keith McNall, R-Lockport. The other opponents were the five members of the Democratic minority: Dennis F. Virtuoso, Renae Kimble and Sean J. O'Connor of Niagara Falls; Harry J. Apolito of Lockport; and Kyle R. Andrews of Wilson.
Formally, the vote was to submit a closure plan to state Health Department, which mandated the submission of such a plan by June 30 as the result of the recommendations of the Berger Commission, the state panel on the future of health care facilities in New York, which placed Mount View on the shutdown list last November.
Assistant County Attorney J. Michael Fitzgerald said if the Health Department finds any fault with the plan and wants to make changes, they will be made administratively. He said the Legislature will never have to vote on Mount View again.
County Manager Gregory D. Lewis, who recommended the closure, acknowledged that no one knows how much it will cost the county.
Virtuoso asked, "Why are we voting on this tonight if we don't know these things? Isn't that kind of dumb?"
Estimates have ranged from $2 million to $7 million over a five-year period. The county will have to fund unemployment benefits for the Mount View workers while continuing to pay 25 percent of the Medicaid costs for most of the patients, no matter where they end up.
Lewis said the county has subsidized Mount View, which is supposed to be self-supporting, with almost $5 million in property tax money since 2004, and he projected a $1.63 million subsidy for 2008 if Mount View had continued to operate.
"I think it will certainly result in a reduction in the size of county government. Ultimately, it will result in a decrease in the overall tax burden," said Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport.
Updegrove, whose grandmother is a Mount View resident, said he voted yes because he felt he was complying with a state mandate. "We followed the state law, irrespective of personal considerations," he said.
Edward McDonald, president of the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents most Mount View workers, acknowledged after the meeting that he has no legal recourse to block the closure. His threats to sue the county to prevent the sale in 2005 and 2006 resulted in delays in the negotiations with the would-be buyer, Senior Associates, whose owners sought financial protection from such a suit.
Lewis said the sale might have closed sooner if it weren't for the union's threats, and if it had, perhaps the Berger Commission might have spared Mount View. "We'd have had more bidders if it weren't for the threat of lawsuits," Lewis said.
McDonald said if the county had renovated Mount View, it would have survived the commission's ax. "You should be ashamed and disgusted with what you're doing," he told the Legislature.
McDonald said he can file a grievance if the county follows through on its plans to hire temporary workers if too many of the current staffers quit to keep the facility going, but he said that won't affect the closure decision.
The recriminations will now move onto the campaign trail for this fall's Legislature elections. "The only recourse we have will be political," McDonald said. "Our goal is to kick out everyone who voted to close Mount View."
Robert Mueller, a labor relations specialist for the Civil Service Employees Association, said his union was still reviewing its legal options. He said, "Maybe AES could put up plaques in their corporate headquarters with pictures of the Mount View patients, because (AES') tax breaks are coming at their expense."
In 2005, the unions made the same push in opposition to a sale of the nursing home, but every member who voted to sell and ran for re-election won his race. McDonald thought this time other issues, such as the AES Corp. property tax break, might stir the voters to defeat "the Republicans and their allies."
With the outcome a foregone conclusion, a crowd of about 30, mostly Mount View employees, showed up to witness the final act of a drama that has preoccupied the Legislature on and off for the past four years. A few brought union placards, but no demonstration materialized.
There was plenty of harsh rhetoric from the Democrats. O'Connor said he was worried about "relocation trauma" he said could kill some Mount View residents. "There's a strong likelihood you could have death out of this," he said.
Noting Lewis' plan for a $15 million public works garage, Virtuoso said, "It's nice that our trucks at Public Works are going to have a state-of-the-art facility and our seniors are going to be out in the street."
Lewis said, "As county manager I'd resign right now, this day, if anybody was going to be thrown out in the gutter."
Since 2003 the Legislature set aside a proposal to renovate the facility, approved its sale, and sued the state after the Berger Commission's report torpedoed that deal.
The commission ordered the county to build an assisted living facility to replace Mount View, but county leaders want no part of it. They met with regional Health Department officials earlier this month and made their views known. "We were told to proceed on that basis," Lewis said.
He hinted that the county's lawsuit gives it leverage against the state and might help it win funding in a competitive grant process for closure aid. Its application is due by July 16.