Earlier that day, union negotiators refused to negotiate any give backs unless the County guaranteed that any new owner would be stuck with both the union and all the obscene benefits (like a 1700% increase in pension costs) that converted Gracedale into a County money pit. They actually took a step backwards. So when I saw that rat, I actually thought of them immediately.
In addition to the rat, another newcomer last night was County Controller Steve Barron. He only rarely bothers to attend Council or Finance Committee meetings, but there he was last night, dressed in his Sunday best. "I'd rather be with the people behind me than the person in front of me," he boomed. That person was County Council Prez Ron Angle. Barron has no solutions to the County's $10 million hole, but he is politically ambitious, and this was the perfect way to pander a few union votes when he runs for Executive.
Barron might want to ask Ann McHale and Charles Dertinger how that worked out for them.
Steve left last night walked out without bothering to listen to members of Council and the Administration. They had things to say, too. He certainly has the right to speak, but every right has a corollary obligation, and in this instance it's the obligation to listen. Even State Rep. Rich Grucela, who opposed the sale of Gracedale, had enough respect for Northampton County officials to stick around and listen to what they had to say.
Had Steve stuck around, he would have heard from Council member Tom Dietrich, who spent the last two weeks visiting three nursing homes sold by Dauphin (sold 3 years ago), Northumberland (8 months ago) and Lackawanna (4 months ago) Counties. He learned that the longer a nursing home has been in private hands, the better it operates. At a minimum, residents report that the level of care is the same. In many cases, they are very complimentary because there is much more therapy in privately run facilities. Two of three homes have increased employment, and many are the same people who previously had been employed by the County. All facilities had increased the number of Medicaid, i.e. indigent, residents. "They are happy to be caring for people instead of talking to politicians," said Dietrich. "The people who bought these facilities are in the business of running a nursing home. We're in the business of running a government. It's time for Gracedale to get rid of the County." Dietrich told me after the meeting that many R.N.s are collecting their County pensions while being paid as nurses in a now privater facility.
Barron also missed Fiscal Affair Director Vic Mazziotti, who told Council that the swaption buyout, which I discussed yesterday, has now risen to $18 million. Although the County did finish last year with $49 million, that number is deceptive. When the $6 million to run Gracedale is deducted, the figure drops to $43 million. When the increasing swaption is deducted, as it must be under new GASB 54 rules, the unrestricted fund drops to $23 million. And when $20 million is set aside as a stabilization, or rainy-day fund, the County is left with just $3 million. And this fund must be used to pay for salary and benefit increases being negotiated with unions.
Bruce Gilbert then introduced a resolution asking County Executive John Stoffa to seek proposals for the sale or lease of Gracedale. Gilbert told everyone that "the residents are clearly in your heart," but Council has an obligation to look at "each and every option."
"This is the vote to sell Gracedale," announced Lamont McClure. "To say otherwise is disingenuous." He then told the 150+ audinece, made up mostly of union Gracedale workers and politicians sensing an opportunity, that the Stoffa administration is sacrificing "our sick and elderly" in favor of a Bethlehem Township treatment center for "drug dealers we want to rehabilitate." His evidence? One, Stoffa wants to build a three hundred bed treatment facility in bethlehem Township. Two, the current budget has no money. Three, the sale of Gracedale will enable the funding for that "prison" in Bethlehem Township.
Even Peg Ferraro, who wants Gracedale to remain in County hands, was appalled by McClure. "Put the treatment center aside," she cautioned. "That is a problem for another day." Bruce Gilbert compared McClure's remarks to the yellow journalism practiced in the past. "Be careful when someone throws out a treatment center when we're supposed to be talking about what is best for the [Gracedale] residents. ... That's like saying a library is created by an exposion of a paper mill and ink factory. Let's refrain from being childish and let's take care of business."
Fortunately, Gilbert never mentioned the yellow journalism being practiced by bottom-feeding bloggers like me.
Gilbert's resolution passed 6 to 2, with McClure and Ferraro opposed. Vacationing Ann McHale was absent, but would likely have been opposed, too. Peg Ferraro then introduced a resolution for proposals seeking a management firm for Gracedale, but that was rejected.
After last night's lengthy meeting, Deputy Sheriffs escorted most Council members and Stoffa to their cars as the air was being let out of the inflatable rat, which was no longer grinning. But there was no escort at Tic Toc Diner, where many Gracedale advocates continued their discussions with a few Council members and Stoffa. The debate was still raging as I left, but I'm pretty sure they were all trying to stick Angle with their bill.