MASSENA — The Massena Town Council unanimously passed a resolution on Monday to sell surplus Massena Memorial Hospital property to St. Lawrence Health System, and set up a mandatory referendum that will be included as part of the Election Day vote on Nov. 5.
But, it didn’t come without some concern from a councilman about the impact if the referendum failed.
“What if this doesn’t pass? What do we do next? What do we do with the Department of Health grant? Are we back to square one? If there’s really no explanation of what happens if this doesn’t pass, where are we?” Councilman Thomas C. Miller asked during the board’s special meeting.
Town attorney Eric Gustafson said there was a narrow window to have a special election outside of a regular election, and it would only require 182 signatures to force a permissive referendum.
He said if a petition is filed with a 15-day window, from 60 days to 75 days of Election Day, they were allowed to have a proposition go to the electorate on Election Day. Monday’s meeting fell within that 15-day window.
“Given the low number of signatures required for the petition and the fact that we didn’t get this very narrow window, it would force the expense of a special town election. It certainly would have created additional expense for the town. It made the most sense to have this by mandatory referendum which is authorized by statute, and it will allow it to be done in a time and place where the most number of people would participate,” he said.
“In the event that this does not pass, we are back to square one. I don’t think there’s any way to sugarcoat that,” Mr. Gustafson said.
Mr. Miller said the town and hospital boards had worked on how to save Massena Memorial Hospital for several years, and he wasn’t against where they were headed. But he still had concerns about the impact if the referendum failed.
“We’ve been through this all. I wish this wasn’t mandatory. If the naysayers want to go out and get a petition, so be it. But we’ve done our work. The board of managers, present and past, have done their homework. We know where we are. I’m OK with it,” he said.
“To tie a mandatory referendum to this resolution is concerning to me. I want to move forward. I want the hospital here, I want to make sure we have jobs here, I want to make sure we have zero impact on taxpayers. I’m concerned with the word ‘mandatory.’ We’re back to square one, it goes back on the taxpayers and we have to cut services. I’m really concerned about this, Mr. Miller said.
The hospital’s Board of Managers and the Massena Town Council had agreed in May “to the concept of entering into a management and operations agreement with St. Lawrence Health System,” with St. Lawrence Health System “providing management, operational strategy and guidance to Massena Memorial Hospital, subject to active oversight and supervision by the New York State Department of Health.”
The management agreement between Massena Memorial Hospital and St. Lawrence Health System was approved by the state Department of Health in June, and allowed St. Lawrence Health System to take over day-to-day management of Massena Memorial Hospital under the leadership of David Bender, who was appointed as chief executive officer following the state’s approval of the agreement.
On July 30, the hospital’s Board of Managers and Massena Town Council met separately to approve three resolutions. Among them was to accept a $20 million grant from the state Department of Health and authorize an asset transfer agreement between Massena Memorial Hospital and St. Lawrence Health.
The grant funding was contingent on the St. Lawrence Health System creating an entirely new nonprofit entity that would acquire Massena’s assets and operate the hospital as part of St. Lawrence Health System. That led the hospital’s Board of Managers, Massena Town Council and St. Lawrence Health System to sign an agreement to convert Massena Memorial from a public to a private, nonprofit hospital that would be part of St. Lawrence Health System, along with Canton-Potsdam and Gouverneur hospitals.
St. Lawrence Health System has also agreed to provide $8 million toward the hospital’s operation.
But, if the referendum fails, that was all for naught, according to Deputy Supervisor Albert Nicola.
“If the referendum does not pass, then the money disappears, $28 million disappears and Massena Memorial Hospital closes,” he said.
“And it’s $30 million of debt on the taxpayers,” Councilman Samuel D. Carbone Jr. said.
Mr. Gustafson said, because of the low number of signatures needed to force a permissive referendum, the town was likely facing a referendum one way or the other.
“If it’s such a low number and we don’t (hold a mandatory referendum), there’s been so much interest generated by this topic. So there will be a referendum no matter what. The question becomes, what is the most efficient way to do the referendum, and the most efficient way is to adopt it within that 15-day window between 60 and 75 days. It just so happens tonight is within that time frame. Let’s put this out to a vote and have people understand the stakes that are involved,” he said.
The resolution that passed Monday noted that the town council had entered into an asset purchase agreement with St. Lawrence Health System on June 30, with St. Lawrence Health System purchasing assets that included all parcels of real property currently titled to the town and/or hospital, which were used to conduct the hospital’s business.
As a result, the town declared the land surplus and not required for any public purpose. That opened the way for the resolution to sell the land to St. Lawrence Health System.
“This is a requirement of the statute that governs how towns transfer real property,” Mr. Gustafson said. “We still have a ways to go. This is just another step. This is the time to do it if we’re going to do it. It’s the thing we’ve all feared for a long time. We knew this day was coming.”