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Concerned citizens again pack town hall to voice displeasure over MMH privatization

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MASSENA - Concerned citizens and employees of Massena Memorial Hospital again filled the town hall’s meeting room on Wednesday to voice their displeasure over the potential privatization of Massena Memorial Hospital.

In addition to dozens of Massena residents, CSEA Director of Member Benefits and Community Relations Sean Egan was also present at the meeting.

“I’m personally convinced he’s (Hospital CEO Charles F. Fahd II) had this privatization on his mind for a long time,” Mr. Egan said, adding administration at the hospital has been less then cooperative in dealing with its employees who are trying to keep the hospital a public entity.

“Over the last several years we have offered to save the hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the hospital has said no,” he said.

Mr. Egan told town board members that the privatization of the hospital, which would cost employees their state pensions and likely alter their insurance benefits wouldn’t only hurt hospital employees.

“Keeping it public is not only beneficial to the hospital and its employees, but to the community,” he said. “You have a decision to make here. Do you want the employees of the third largest employer in town to lose their pension?”

Town Councilman John F. Macaulay said that while nobody wants to lose their pension, something has to be done to help save the hospital.

“We all know what happened when General Motors couldn’t pay its bills,” he said. “A lot of people in this town (Mr. Macaulay included) went through what you’re going through. It’s going to take sacrifices from everybody.”

That comment prompted someone from the audience to shout, “Except for Mr. Fahd.”

“Ok, except for maybe Mr. Fahd,” Mr. Macaulay replied.

Mr. Fahd and his salary, which is now $280,000 and will rise to $295,000 next year, were the subject of much debate at the meeting, with many people wondering how he could have such a large salary during what the hospital is calling “tough financial times.”

“A lot of improvements at this hospital have been done by this manager and that hospital board,” Mr. Macaulay said. “The history under Charlie Fahd has been mostly positive.”

Frank Mittiga disagreed, calling Mr. Fahd’s raise “rewarding bad behavior.”

Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said that with all but two hospitals in the state being private entities, it is hard to tell what other hospital CEOs make.

“What do other hospital CEOs make? We don’t know because they’re all private, but we know what Mr. Fahd makes because it’s public,” he said.

Mr. Gray also said that through all of the debate regarding the hospital and its future there’s been one question lingering in his mind.

“The question that keeps haunting me is why are there only two public hospitals in the state?” he wondered.

Wayne Lincoln, vice president of the CSEA union representing many of the hospital employees said perhaps their financial problems could be solved if the hospital would hire some additional doctors so they weren’t having to send so many patients elsewhere.

“A few new doctors in this place could do wonders,” he said. “We’re shipping people to Potsdam all the time.”

Former St. Lawrence County legislator and Massena resident Charlie Romigh agreed.

“I’ve sat in the Potsdam hospital for 30 minutes and have seen seven people from Massena using their services,” he said. “That’s what hurts our hospital.”

Mr. Romigh also said that should the hospital privatize and jobs are lost, the town could be in trouble.

“The big thing you have to worry about is jobs being lost and homes being lost,” he said. “Then you’re going to lose tax dollars.”

While many of the hospital’s employees are fighting privatization, Mr. Macaulay said they should be fighting something else.

“For the patients who go into that place, it never occurs to them if the place is public or private,” Mr. Macaulay said. “Keeping the hospital should be everybody’s goal and it isn’t right now.”

One of the things hindering the hospital’s efforts is that as a public entity they are not allowed to participate in mergers or shared services with other hospitals, something that might be possible today if it weren’t for the efforts of the CSEA 15 years ago, according to Mr. Gray.

In an exchange with Mr. Egan Mr. Gray said, “Fifteen years ago there was a flexibility bill. You guys in Albany killed it. It would have allowed you guys to enter into those partnerships and the union here supported it, but you guys in Albany killed it.”

Mr. Egan, who noted he was not involved in CSEA 15 years ago, said the union would be willing to lobby for such legislation today. He also noted that the union is currently in negotiations with hospital administration, although Mr. Lincoln said in his opinion the administration isn’t putting much effort into them.

“We are trying to work with the administration,” he said. “We had a labor management meeting today and Charlie Fahd wasn’t there.”

Mr. Lincoln also alleged that he was told today the hospital didn’t want to negotiate with its employees until the privatization was finalized.

“I don’t think negotiations are going to happen,” he said. “It’s a waste of time to negotiate until privatization happens. That’s what we were told today.”

Councilman Charles Raiti said the union should put together a team and approach management at the hospital in a civil manner to negotiate possible ways to save the hospital and maybe keep it a public entity. He noted that when GM was discussing closing the Massena plant in the 80s, the employees were able to come together and keep the plant open for 20 more years.

“If you want to save that hospital, you need to do what those union members did. They saved that place for 21 years,” he said.

Should those meeting ever occur, Mr. Gray said he would be willing to attend and Councilman Albert N. Nicola warned those in attendance that civility would be important.

“These meetings should not be confrontation,” he said. “They are emotional and I understand that.”

Reviewing the hospital’s financial statements Mr. Macaulay noted that in December of 2010 the hospital had $15.1 million in available cash. As of July 31 that figure was down to $4.1 million and with operating losses of $2 million already this year, Mr. Macaulay said the math is not favorable.

“Quick mathematics shows in a year and a half they’re out of business,” he said.

Some citizens suggested going to the taxpayers for funding to help save the hospital and keep it public, but Mr. Raiti said it’s not easy.

According to Mr. Raiti, $500,000 on the tax levy equals a $1 per thousand of assessed property value tax hike.

“That’s just $500,000,” Mr. Macaulay said. “We’re on pace for $4 million. That’s eight times that.”

Should the taxpayers be forced to make up a $4 million loss for the hospital, that would translate to a tax rate increase of $8 per $1,000 of assessed property value, without even accounting for the town’s other expenses.

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