By Michael Kaufman
I tried in vain to differentiate between the knaves and fools among the 12 Orange County legislators who cast 12 futile votes Thursday to authorize the sale of the Valley View Center for Nursing Care and Rehabilitation. The vote came after several hours of public comments that again made it abundantly clear to everyone in the packed auditorium (except for the aforementioned 12 knaves or fools) that the overwhelming majority of Orange County residents want to keep Valley View publicly owned.
I wish I were an expert in interpreting body language or had one with me during the session. He or she would have been able to explain why some legislators’ faces turned red as beets and others slunk into their seats and avoided eye contact with audience members. Curlie Dillard, the sole Democrat among the 12, was careful not to attract attention to his self and uttered but one word during the entire session, a quick “yes” during the roll call. Democratic Caucus Chair Jeff Berkman, whose plan to “save Valley View by downsizing it” (and selling some beds to a private for-profit company) was dead in the water before the meeting started, appeared humble as he explained his reasoning. In the end, however, he joined the rest of his caucus (with the exception of the aforementioned Dillard) in voting “no” and denying County Executive Steve Neuhaus the requisite 14-vote supermajority he craves.
Chairman Steve Brescia did an admirable job of running the meeting and keeping a straight face while knowing that nothing said—no matter how factual, eloquent or passionate—would change his mind or those of the other 11 knaves or fools. Was that stress-induced rosacea on Legislator Michael Amo’s face or was it that red because his bow tie was too tight around his neck? Amo, introduced by Brescia as “party leader Amo” because he is chair (and sole member) of the legislature’s one-man Independence Party caucus, voted “yes” after a peculiar but apparently sincere soliloquy lamenting that more isn’t being done to enable families to care for loved ones at home.
Republican Dennis Simmons got red-faced as he listened to a host of veterans who questioned the legislature’s commitment to the men and women who have served in the military to protect our rights and are now in need of care. He’s a veteran too, he said, and recited his name, rank, and serial number to prove it. He said he knows from experience of his own family members that you can get really good care from low-paid workers at private nursing homes. He objected to those who would “besmirch” those workers’ reputations! (He also complained that former County Executive Ed Diana’s reputation got “besmirched” on a previous occasion.) This was after several speakers cited statistics comparing the large number of complaints filed against Focus, the private operator said to be the favorite to take over Valley View, versus the small number of complaints filed against Valley View. One of the complaints against Focus involved sexual abuse of an elderly woman and Simmons thought it was a cheap shot to mention it.
Majority Leader Melissa Bonacic did not seem at all uncomfortable as she thanked the veterans in attendance for their service and assured them that this legislature (which as presently composed seems incapable of governing its way out of a paper bag) would see to it that all current residents of Valley View would receive the same level of care if Valley View were sold to a private operator. Her reasoning was twofold (and also places her squarely in the fool category): “It’s the trend,” she explained, adding that counties all over the state are getting rid of their nursing homes and that she’s scared. Her second reason? “I don’t believe the county should be in the nursing home business.”
But that is precisely the point. Valley View has thrived lo these past 183 years because it is not a “business.” It has been publicly owned, supported by tax dollars, and provides a vital service to the residents of Orange County. Assurances from Bonacic or any other county legislator that the quality of care will be maintained for current and future residents if the facility is privatized must be taken with at least 12 grains of salt. And speaking of future residents, here are some other things to consider: Orange County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state in terms of population. The so-called middle class is shrinking here as it is throughout the USA with no end in sight to the rise in wealth inequality. People are living longer. Taken together this means more people among the lower 99 percent will be in need of the services provided by Valley View simply because they won’t be able to afford to pay for equivalent quality care at a private facility.
Thanks are in order to the nine legislators who stood fast against the bullying of the county executive and his minions in the legislature. Several deserve special mention, most notably Republican Mike Anagnostakis, who has put in many hours studying the flawed 2015 budget proposed by Neuhaus and has suggested reality-based alternatives to the sale of Valley View, upon which the Neuhaus budget relies. Unflinching support for Valley View also came from Democrats Matt Turnbull, Roseanne Sullivan, Chris Eachus, and Myrna Kemnitz.
Thanks to them and the handful of other Democrats who voted no, Valley View will now be funded for a full year instead of a few months. But this fight is far from over. The private nursing home operators see gold in “them thar hills” of Goshen. And Neuhaus and his knaves and fools will continue to do all they can to hand it over to them.
Michael can be reached at email@example.com.