Golden Hill hearing: Occupied

Video: Saugerties resident Ralph Childers speaks against the privatization of Golden Hill, and has his words echoed by members of the crowd, in a "human microphone" technique used by Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Fifteen individual members of the public signed up to speak at the Ulster County Legislature's public hearing Tuesday night on whether or not to privatize the county-owned 280-bed Golden Hill Health Care Facility. But the human microphone technique made famous by Occupy Wall Street, used by several of the speakers, meant that quite a few additional members of the audience of about 60 were able to have their voices heard.

All but one of the speakers expressed opposition to the privatization of the facility. A plan unveiled by county executive Michael P. Hein last month would cover an eight million dollar budget shortfall by selling the facility to a local development corporation (LDC). The LDC -- governed by representatives of both the administrator's office and the legislature -- would issue $8 million in bonds and pay it to the county to cover operating costs, and would manage the facility until 2013, when it would be sold.

Ever since Hein announced the proposal as part of his 2012 budget, his office has been wrangling over the Golden Hill issue with county legislators, a group of whom have been studying options for what to do about the facility since 2009.

Former Republican legislator Attilio Contini spoke first.

“Mr. Hein's proposal worries me. A local development corporation is a bad idea," he said. "A Democrat friend who claims to be a close friend of Mr. Hein says there is a possible buyer already, which presents yet another problem- it's said to be a religious organization from southern New York. If they purchase the facility it would be off the tax rolls and be used just for their people, not for local residents. Where will that put the 280 people who are currently in that facility? We need more beds for local residents, not less.”

Golden Hill employee Allison Wilber told the legislators that the workers felt their voices were not being heard.

“Do you guys really ever listen? I would appreciate it if you would pull one of us aside and explain, 'This is how I feel about this and here's why.' I'd like to know why a lot of you don't want to care for the elderly, the people who raised us,” she said.

Civil Service Employees Association vice president Todd Schmidt followed Wilber, calling the facility “the jewel in the crown of Ulster County."

"The best way to take care of the elderly is to continue to own and operate (it),” he said.

Schmidt characterized the LDC concept as “a financial or fiscal gimmick that the executive has created” that would be exempt from Freedom of Information, open meeting and competitive bidding laws that regulate public officials.

Town of Rochester supervisor Carl Chipman, a Republican, offered the most neutral remarks of the evening.

“Let's go with the assumption that you will have the seventeen votes needed to approve this,” he said, “so the question is how you will handle it going forward. Legislators have to do everything they can to be equal partners and to bring in others. There should be a representative of the employees on the LDC board, and a representative from the League of Women Voters. By adding those outside things, you get transparency.”

Chipman advocated that “the widest possible net” be spread to find a buyer.

Other speakers included Sue Rosenberg, a thirty year employee of Ulster County Mental Health.

“Care must be a right- guaranteed services over which we the people have control,” she said. “We can't afford to turn over our best services to private entities.” Mental health services are also being considered for privatization.

Golden Hill retiree Mary Berardi offered the legislators a check on the spot for her share of the nursing home's costs, which she said would amount to $94 per taxpayer each year.

The “mic checks” began with speaker Ralph Childers of Occupy Saugerties, who led quite a few of the crowd through several statements they repeated after him.

“Who is 'bleeping' the 99 percent?” asked Childers and the chorus of voices that echoed him. “Corporations! What is an LDC? A corporation!”

Another Occupy Saugerties member, Steve Smith, led the crowd to remind the legislators, “You could move into Golden Hill...Michael Hein, stop bullying social services!”

“This is just like Wall Street,” observed chairman Fred Wadnola. “Feel free to jump in!” called out an audience member. Four speakers in succession led the crowd in supporting continued public ownership.

Local resident Michael Cornell, his voice breaking slightly, told the legislature that his mother had just moved to the facility, and that he felt deceived by Hein's actions.

"I'm trusting my mom to every one of you. Do the right thing by my mom,” he said.

Finally, resident Lin Sakai presented a three page list of LDC-related considerations generated by county comptroller Elliot Auerbach.

“Are each of these considerations being considered by you, the legislators, and are we the people privy to those deliberations?” she asked.

Occupy representatives were clearly exhilarated by their use of the technique, developed by demonstrators for situations -- unlike the hearing -- in which electronic amplification is unavailable or not allowed.

“I think about eight of us from Occupy Saugerties actually showed up, but the union folks chimed in with us,” said retired county employee David Bruner, one of the “mic check” speakers. “It was a little tricky -- with sheriffs at both doors, we felt like we had to keep it down.”

The legislature is scheduled to vote on Hein's proposal on December 5.

More video taken at the meeting:

Coverage of the meeting by the Daily Freeman.