Legislature debate over sale similar to Manor Oak

Less than a decade ago, the on again, off again sale of a nursing home cost Chautauqua County more than $1 million.

With recent events, the county could be on the same path.

In 2006, the Manor Oak Life Center on Baker Street in Jamestown was sold for $25,000, though it owed back taxes to the county in the amount of $1.4 million. While Manor Oak wasn’t owned by the county, there are similarities between the debate over Manor Oak and the Chautauqua County Home.

Although he was not yet county executive when the Manor Oak situation was going through the legislature, Greg Edwards remembers it well.

“That is precisely what we’ve been trying to prevent,” he said. “The situations are very similar. Ultimately it will happen, just like Legislator (Charles) Nazzaro said on the floor of the legislature, if we don’t privatize the home, it will end up being closed. That Manor Oak was a debacle. And, it cost the taxpayers of Chautauqua County untold amounts of money.”

THE COMPARISON

The county opted to market the Manor Oak to potential buyers in 2003, despite a request by the Jamestown Urban Renewal Agency to do its own marketing of the home.

Much like recent discussions to sell the Chautauqua County Home to William (Avi) Rothner of Altitude Health Services, legislators in 2004 faced questions of their own regarding Senior Associates, who offered $1.4 million for the Baker Street facility. Another bid, from Hart Facility Acquisitions, would have paid the county $450,000 for Manor Oak. City officials preferred Hart’s bid because they thought he would have a better chance getting a certificate of need from the state Health Department to keep Manor Oak open.

Those who backed the $1.4 million sale emphasized that not only did the company pledge to maintain the jobs and residents, it also offered an amount that covered the $1.4 million the county was owed in property taxes, penalties and related charges.

With the recent situation at the County Home, Rothner had offered to pay the county $16.5 million. Additionally, he had agreed to 14 stipulations regarding the home, including maintaining staff.

One issue repeatedly raised over the last several months was whether Rothner was the appropriate buyer for the home.

“I am concerned that Avi Rothner has been listed as one of worst nursing home owners in the state of Illinois in accordance with government records,” Lori Cornell, D-Jamestown, wrote in a recent editorial. “I am concerned that during the last several years, the highly reputable Chicago Tribune newspaper did an extensive investigative series that calls into question some of the business practices and care violations of the Rothner family nursing homes where Avi is a financial stakeholder.”

By Cornell’s side in the situation has been minority leader Robert Whitney, D-Jamestown.

“It occurred to me that I have spoken to numerous constituents that support the sale of the County Home, but who tell me they know very little about the bidder, Avi Rothner,” Whitney said recently. “And when I tell them about the Rothner family’s less-than-stellar record, they become very concerned. Chautauqua County residents deserve to know the facts about Rothner’s operations.”

In 2004, Senior Associates was also questioned by legislators.

“This is much more than a real estate transaction,” former Legislator Maria Kindberg said.

Kindberg had argued that the home’s employees and residents mattered more than the property’s sale price.

“They are more than just real estate to me,” she said.

Concerns over Senior Associates’ ability to provide care weren’t enough to prevent the legislature, in a close vote, from selling the facility anyway. Because Manor Oak was not county-owned property, legislators voted 13-12 in January 2004 to sell the facility to Senior Associates after a meeting which lasted four-and-a-half hours. Legislators decided the financial stake it had invested in the Baker Street property was worth making the sale.

On Feb. 27 of this year, legislators voted 15-9, with one legislator absent, in favor of selling the County Home to Rothner during a meeting lasting four hours. However, as the County Home is county-owned, it would have required 17 votes from legislators in order to be sold.

‘THE REAL CHOICE’

For Manor Oak, although the sale was approved, the home was shut down after the sate refused to issue a certificate of need, which was required for Senior Associates to operate the 104-bed nursing home.

“The state made, in its mind, the determinations that Chautauqua County was over-bedded,” Steve Centi, former director of development, told the OBSERVER in 2008.

In 2006, Manor Oak was sold at auction for $25,000, far less than the amount of money owed in taxes.

It’s unknown how the certificate of need process would be handled in the case of the Chautauqua County Home. A report on options for the home released in August by the Center for Governmental Research said it had questions only that Rothner’s inexperience with the state Health Department could delay a certificate of need.

That’s a problem Edwards would love to have, however.

Right now, he needs a sale to even begin the process. In his mind, selling is the best option to give the home a chance of staying open.

“(If the County Home goes the route of Manor Oak) then all the employees are out of jobs,” he said. “There is no tax base. There is no opportunity for the economy. Our seniors who do need skilled nursing are forced out, likely out of the county and into other facilities. That’s the real choice we’re talking about here. It’s been a frustration for me that, unfortunately, the vocal minority has been able to try to characterize it otherwise.”