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Talk of nursing home sale raises issue of airport costs

The possibility that the Genesee County Nursing Home might be sold to a private provider has led to criticism that the county's operation of an airport is far less vital than a health facility.

Selling the facility, which was founded in 1827 in Bethany and moved to its current location in Batavia 1974, erupted into controversy over the last several months following the prediction of an operating loss of more than $1 million in 2010.

Scott D. German, county treasurer, says the 140-bed nursing home has lost more than $5.4 million over the last five years.

The airport, however, posted a surplus in 2009 of $34,000, according to Timothy J. Hens, superintendent of the county's Highway Department.

The protests of nursing home supporters -- who have waged a petition drive and written letters to the local media -- have intensified of late as the County Legislature approved a $600,000 capital project for T-hangars and improved taxiways at the airport.

Those in favor of keeping the nursing home in the county's hands believe that money directed toward the airport could be better spent for the elderly. They contend the airport benefits only a small number of people in a county of 60,000 residents.

"Our concentration should be toward the majority of people who will benefit in the long run," said one letter writer.

Overlooked in the debate is that the Federal Aviation Administration funds 95 percent of the airport's improvements with fees paid by air travelers. Therefore, the $600,000 could not be diverted to nursing home operations.

Hens also disputes one suggestion that the airport "is a rich man's playground."

Millions have been spent in recent years to acquire a buffer zone, extend the runway to 5,500 feet to accommodate business jets, and other improvements.

Hens called the airport "an integral part of our local transportation network, and critical to the continued development of the local economy."

Taxpayers get back more than they put it," he said.

Several new local companies use the airport for business, and Mercy Flight has a hangar there to speed its response. In 2009, the airport cost $546,338 to operate -- funding from the county's general fund.

The argument may simmer for a while.

County Manager Jay A. Gsell said that over the next six to eight months, officials will decide to keep or retain the nursing home, whose annual operating losses are in six figures.

Of immediate concern, Gsell said, is finding a consultant to run the nursing home after the resignation of administrator John F. Demske. State rules require a licensed administrator, Gsell said, and no one on the current staff is eligible.

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