Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fields Of Gold


Imagine a scenario in which gorgeous, undisturbed open space located in your community, but owned by Montgomery County, is quietly, inexplicably and suddenly targeted for sale and rushed to closing.  

Think it couldn’t happen? We have county-owned open space at the Audubon Recreation Association fields, at Mill Grove, at the Shannondell Golf Course, even surrounding the prison in Eagleville. Most of that is under long term lease, but leases, like any other contract, can be terminated early for a variety of reasons unless otherwise protected by legal instruments.
As if that is not bad enough, imagine that all the details surrounding the proposals and contract award of the sale of land in your community – which you might even live close to - is done with next to no transparency. You have no idea what could be happening there in a few short months. Still think this couldn’t happen?
Folks, all of this IS happening just one township over from us. If you have any relatives or friends who are residents or employees of Parkhouse, Montgomery County’s geriatric and rehabilitation complex in Upper Providence Township, you especially want to be paying attention. Parkhouse consists of a 467-bed skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility, a senior daycare and fifteen rental apartments for seniors.
Back in June, Montgomery County put Parkhouse up for sale and advertised for proposals for a private entity to purchase and operate it. Part of the assets included in the RFP were 220 acres of open, mostly agricultural, land surrounding Parkhouse. Over the summer, the County set up several meetings with UPT officials, theoretically to discuss their intentions regarding the proposed sale, get UPT’s concerns, and update UPT as to the status.
The County cancelled meeting after meeting, finally finding time to sit down with UPT in July, but not to discuss UPT’s concerns with the sale, but to discuss the COUNTY’S  concerns with UPT’s pending rezoning of the parcel, which was in process prior to the county issuing the RFP. The rezoning involved changing the subject property from R1 Residential with an institutional overlay to OSC (open space with institutional overlay).  They met with UPT staff only once again, in September, again, to discuss THEIR concerns, specifically the granting of a proposed “natural subdivision" sectioning off some of the open space down Route 113.

Since early September, I have submitted a couple of Right to Know requests to try to figure out something about this, and bottom line, the County has been stalling me left and right with what I believe are contrived excuses that are not legitimate under the Open Records Law. This isn't my first trip to the rodeo; I know how this works, so I appealed. I filed the second such request after I became aware that an October 8 meeting was scheduled for the purpose of having the ‘Working Group’ (an all-county-employee board tasked with reviewing proposals) present their findings to the county Commissioners. They did not make the winning bidder’s proposal public, nor did they reveal the names of the other bidders, including the second of the two purported finalists. This Working Group recommended that bidder Mid-Atlantic Health Care from Maryland be awarded the bid, and a few days later, the Commissioners accepted their recommendation and voted to sell the whole shebang to Mid-Atlantic for $39 million.
Some initial research I did revealed some potentially disturbing information about the winning bidder. They’ve accumulated half of their current holdings only since 2011, and took on enormous debt ($106M) to do so, so one wonders how they propose to add to their portfolio another $39M in debt AND an operation that according to the County is losing $2-7M a year and turn it around. I work in pharma; I know how unlikely it is that they will become profitable merely by joining a Group Purchasing Organization (GPO) as suggested by Dr. Rifkin, and if that argument had any merit, why didn't the County try that first?

I also found information which suggests that Dr. Scott Rifkin, Mid-Atlantic’s owner, over the past twenty years has led at least one prior business down the road to bankruptcy (several he's been involved are no longer in business today and one them was a creditor to the bankrupt business), also after aggressively and rapidly expanding. Did anyone at County vet Mid-Atlantic’s finances or viability?  Do they really care about the continuity of services and operational excellence at Parkhouse going forward? The employees? The patients and residents???
Also I discovered that Rifkin, despite his claims that he’s ‘not a political guy’, ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Maryland state senate in 2006 (here) and his brother is a Washington lobbyist.  I wonder to what degree those facts had anything to do with their introduction to, and selection by, a Democrat-majority Board of Commissioners as the winning bidder. If Rifkin would misrepresent his political background, what else would he misrepresent?

While all this has transpired, citing their desire to close the deal by the end of this year (in an arbitrarily set deadline less than 8 weeks from now) the County on November 4 pushed UPT to grant them a ‘natural subdivision’ without going through Planning Commission review…without knowing what the winning bidder has planned…without knowing, really, anything.

All that is known about this plan is what we have been told by the County. Nobody in the public has, to my knowledge, ever seen the actual proposal. After the bid was awarded in October, after my second Right To Know request received the same response as the first and the County still hadn’t turned over the proposal nor the names of the other bidders, I appealed. Once I filed the appeal with the state, THEN the County turned over the list of bidders, but are still refusing to turn over the actual proposal, even though the bid has been awarded. What are they waiting for? What can't we know until the sale is already a done deal and it can't be undone?

The County’s ‘Working Group” who recommended the sale represented to the Commissioners that they had kept Upper Providence officials informed during the entire process and that UPT was on board with their plans. UPT supervisors deny this is the case, and it’s my understanding the County is very unhappy that UPT isn’t moving this along on the timeline the County desires. 
UPT is concerned that the IN overlay allows the buyer to develop something with an institutional use and their worry is that the new owner could come in, develop a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC – a local example of a CCRC is Shannondell), something Rifkin actually suggested could happen, and then potentially – judging by Rifkin’s apparent track record - go bankrupt soon after, leaving either partially or fully completed structures behind that would then need to be converted into apartments or something else to be viable. That’s in addition to any negative impact on the existing Parkhouse facility.
So the $39 million dollar question is, what does Mid-Atlantic propose to do with the 200 acres surrounding the Parkhouse facility for which the County is aggressively pursuing subdivision? And why can’t anyone know what that is for? For all we know, they want to put a home for sex offenders on the property, or a rehab facility for drug addicts. It could all be paved over and made into parking. We just don’t know.  Despite all the chest-thumping Commissioner Josh Shapiro has been doing about how transparent his administration is, from my viewpoint, they are anything but.
There are other aspects to this debacle. As has been well documented in the press, Montgomery County has been in financial distress, with a gaping hole in their budget, partly caused by ‘economic development projects’. The County has thrown away approximately $62M in recent years in the name of Norristown revitalization investments which have been abject failures, with no one asking what happened to the money invested…certainly not the local press.

Also, what will happen with the employees? I’m aware that the nurses’ union, the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professional Union, is receiving calls from distressed employees at Parkhouse upset about cuts to their benefits and increases in their medical care premiums already, despite Mid-Atlantic’s promises that nothing would change.
However, the worst aspect of all, besides the County trying to bully a convenient solution to their financial problems by ramming it down a local muncipality’s throat , is trying to fix their well-documented budget problems at the expense of our County’s most vulnerable and lowest-income residents that reside at Parkhouse and who rely on the facility for treatment and care.

There is a public meeting of UPT’s Planning Commission scheduled this coming Wednesday evening, November 13 at 7 pm at the UPT building on Black Rock Road. County officials will be making their case for the subdivision request at that time, and if you have any questions or concerns about their plans for this facility and the surrounding open space, you would be well served to attend. It might be your only opportunity to push for answers before Montgomery County finishes their mad sprint to get this done with as few eyeballs on it as possible before the end of the year.

What's happening early next year that's driving this insane deadline to get that $540K budget surplus by the end of the year? If County is dealing in good faith, why won't they turn over a copy of the proposal so we can all see what Dr. Rifkin has proposed?
Art used with permission of Jack Minster

A link with some more detail on this issue than I have room for here can be found here, along with some pertinent questions that should really be asked at next Wednesday's meeting, if you so desire.  And, UPT supervisor Lisa Mossie weighs in with this letter to the editor, here.

However this turns out, if this is how the County feels it's appropriate to deal with local municipalities, how long will it be before the County wants something here in LP that they don't want to deal with us in good faith about?

PS To add insult to injury  At the very meeting where they approved the sale of Parkhouse and 220 acres of open space, the Commissioners received the thanks of the Montgomery County Lands Trust for their financial contribution to…wait for it….preserve a mere 33 acres of greenways in Upper Dublin and Springfield Townships. I guess only open space EAST of Route 422 is worthy of preservation.

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