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Town council receives praise for not rushing to vote on privatization

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MASSENA - Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray opened Wednesday evening’s public comment section of the town board meeting by informing the meeting’s attendees that public comment was going to be limited to 15 minutes in accordance with the town’s policy, which has been loosely enforced over the past several months.

Nearly 50 minutes later the meeting resumed.

“We’re not going to get off on a 45-minute discussion on the hospital,” Mr. Gray said. “We’ve done that too many times already. We’re going to hold it to 15 minutes.”

With several members of the Massena Memorial Hospital Board of Managers in attendance just one day after collectively sending a statement calling for the town board to cast a vote on privatization, Mr. Gray informed the meeting’s attendees that was not going to be happening.

“We’re not going to make a decision on privatization tonight,” he said. “If that’s your concern, we’re not going to be making a decision tonight.”

While many of the people who spoke were hospital employees, two men with no direct affiliation to the hospital also spoke, offering differing views on taxpayers supporting the hospital.

Joseph Trimboli said if taxpayers end up being forced to support the hospital he would have to sell his home and move elsewhere.

“My concern is the burden that’s going to be on the taxpayers to support the hospital,” he said. “I own a home that’s assessed for $110,000. That’s going to kill me.”

Mr. Trimboli said he is a supporter of unions, but simply fees like a line must be drawn in the sand before the hospital’s problems reach the point of needing revenue from tax dollars to stay afloat.

“I’m union, don’t get me wrong, but you have to draw the line somewhere,” he said. “If this is going to go to the taxpayers, I believe there should be a public vote.”

Mr. Gray explained once the town elects to either privatize or not privatize, that would set the wheels in motion for a permissive referendum, where members of the public could force a vote on the matter through the circulation of a petition containing a number of signatures equal to 10 percent from the state’s last gubernatorial election. Mr. Gray estimated that number to be between 500 and 600 signatures.

Bruce Webber countered Mr. Trimboli’s position though and said if taxpayer support is needed to keep the hospital open so be it.

“If my taxes were raised to support the hospital on a short- term basis, I’m not going to like it, but I would pay it,” he said, adding that as a citizen of the community he hasn’t felt very informed throughout the privatization process.

“I don’t lay that on the hospital board, I lay it on the administrator,” he said.

Kerrie French said she wanted to stress to the public that currently zero tax dollars are being used to support the hospital.

“Right now the town’s taxpayers pay no taxes to the hospital, none,” she said, adding she was disheartened to read in Wednesday’s edition of the Daily Courier-Observer numbers (which came from the hospital’s board of managers) indicating how much taxes could increase without privatization.

“All I continually see in the paper is scare tactics,” she said.

Assemblywoman Addie Jenne Russell applauded the board for not rushing into a privatization decision.

“I’m very happy to be here and hear a vote on privatization will not happen tonight,” Ms. Russell said, adding she was also glad to hear Mr. Gray mention that pension costs should be going down in the future.

Ms. Russell also read a letter from concerned IBEW members who work in Massena. According to the letter, the electrical workers were concerned about the hospital and in the case of emergency having to rely on the volunteer rescue squad to take them to a health care institution several miles from Massena Memorial Hospital, when they’re already “waiting 20 minutes.”

Councilman John F. Macaulay said he did not appreciate what he perceived to be a shot at the rescue squad in the letter.

“The comments on the rescue squad are way out of line,” Mr. Macaulay said. “The last time we studied response times, the Massena Volunteer Rescue Squad has the best response times in the county. I don’t know what they are, but they are the best and you can take that to the bank.”

Ms. Russell said she doesn’t believe the letter was intended to be disrespectful to the rescue squad and rather was intended to simply note how far people working at the New York Power Authority are from the hospital.

As for the potential closing of the hospital, Councilman Albert C. Nicola said he would like to know why that was ever even mentioned.

“It has been, is and will continue to be the main objective of this board to keep the hospital open,” he said. “I can’t imagine what would happen to Alcoa without the hospital.”

Ms. Russell then responded to a statement Mr. Gray released last week about entering a relationship with Canton-Potsdam Hospital.

“Canton-Potsdam has presented to the public that it would like to minimize services available elsewhere and build a new central hospital in Canton,” she said. “If you think this is what Canton-Potsdam Hospital wants, is this someone you want to enter into a relationship with?”

Ms. Russell said she feels like Massena can support its own hospital, and she suggested looking elsewhere for partnerships like Plattsburgh, Clifton-Fine, Lowville, Alex Bay, Watertown or Ogdensburg.

“They’re not affiliated with each other, but they are all working together,” she said.

Massena Mayor James F. Hidy was also in attendance at the meeting. He disagreed with Ms. Russell and said the time to act is now.

“There are some decisions that need to be made,” he said. “It’s privatization or taxation.”

Mr. Hidy then asked when a vote would be held.

“We have not set a time frame for a vote,” Mr. Gray replied, adding there are town board members still seeking information related to the possible switch from a municipal to private, not for profit hospital.

“I’m not going to say privatize now and then have the hospital go bankrupt in three years,” Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Nicola agreed and said there is nothing wrong with taking time to make an informed decision.

“The worst decision is one made under pressure or duress,” he said.

Karen Wilkens, an employee of the hospital, said should Massena Memorial go private they should be prepared for an exodus of employees. Hospital employees are currently members of the state’s pension program.

“If we go private, remember you are going to end up losing people,” she said. “You’re not going to want to be paid $20 an hour when you can go 25 minutes up the road and receive double that. I’m sorry, but this world has gone fro, ‘I want to be a nurse when I’m five years old’ to ‘What’s in it for me?’”

Ms. Wilkens also said she hopes the town would be willing to spend money to get some answers, noting the board recently agreed to spend $82,000 (in gaming compact money) on a study to look at locating a sports and entertainment complex in Massena.

While Mr. Gray said he’s not opposed to spending money on a consultant for the town to review the hospital situation, he also put the $82,000 study into perspective.

“To put things in perspective, that $82,000 is one week of losses at the hospital,” he said.

The conversation also focused on whether the hospital can partner with outside facilities while remaining a municipal hospital, a topic that has been a subject of much debate.

“The answer to that question depends on which lawyer you talk to,” Mr. Gray said.

Paul Morrow, who serves on the hospital’s board of managers, disagreed.

“It’s a state law. We can’t co-mingle our funds. It doesn’t matter what anyone else tells you. If this goes belly up, the Massena people are going to be stuck with the tab.”

Dr. Susanna Daye warned that if Massena isn’t careful Massena Memorial Hospital could end up like the former E.J. Noble Hospital in Gouverneur.

“Do you want to be the next Gouverneur? The hospital (Gouverneur Hospital) has become a quote end quote ‘first-aid station,’” she said before growing emotional.

As Ms. Daye continued to speak, she fought back tears.

“We can’t give everything away. I don’t see why we are in such a hurry to be private,” she said. “It happened in Gouverneur. It could happen here.”

Mr. Macaulay and Mr. Gray took issue with that statement, noting that if it wasn’t for St. Lawrence Health Services the Gouverneur community wouldn’t even have the hospital it has today.

“I don’t want anyone to think it was a negative thing that St. Lawrence Health Systems took over Gouverneur Hospital,” Mr. Macaulay said. “Gouverneur Hospital is running better now than it was before.”

Mr. Gray said the comparison to Gouverneur Hospital is all the more reason to act quickly.

“They paid $5 million for a hospital that couldn’t pay its bills,” he said. “Gouverneur Hospital was failing.”

Mr. Gray said Massena Memorial Hospital has not yet reached that point, and he’s hoping the town board can make some sort of decision before it does.

“Right now we’re still in decent shape. I don’t want to wait until we are in a Gouverneur situation,” he said explaining that once the hospital goes in the red, they lose any strength they would have when trying to negotiate with potential partners.

Mr. Gray said should the town board ultimately vote for privatization, it could include certain provisions in any contract such as keeping the hospital open in Massena and even maintaining local control of the hospital.

“We won’t enter into an agreement until we are confident our concerns are met,” he said.

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