February 24, 2006

Seeing Red

The Union County Public Information Department has been hard at work pumping out press releases attempting to buffer the thud that is sure to come when the county budget hearings end and the finished product finally lands square on the backs of the Union County tax payers.

The county manager released his proposed budget last month complete with alerts from the PI Dept. saying cuts to programs would be necessary, but adding, it was not certain what action the board would take to contain expenses that they say are careening totally out of their control.

It was announced that a hiring freeze was being promptly implemented until further notice and that departments were instructed to come to the scheduled budget hearings with options for cutting costs and ideas to generate new revenues if possible.

The threat of budget cuts has most department heads scratching their noggins hoping for an Epiphany that will play a role in keeping their department’s budget at 2005 levels.

Saturday, February 11,2006 - Budget Hearing
In almost a whisper, Mr. Joseph Sharp, Administrator of Runnells Hospital, quietly announced that the hospital operated at a deficit in 2005 though the final figure was yet to be determined, the guesstimate is somewhere between $250,000 and $1mil. High overtime by the nursing staff was one reason given as a factor for the negative figure, the hospital like private business is forced to keep jobs open in compliance with the Family Leave Act. An unfortunate fact of life is that the cost of temporary nursing staff to fill the voids is equal to if not more than paying regular employees’ overtime.

The Freeholder board has, for a few years, used Runnells Hospital as a campaign issue touting the fact that it has been operating in the black under their guidance. They have been labeling all opponents as being partner to wanting to close the facility in an effort to do the unthinkable, save cash. They have tried to terrorize the public with this negativity and have many voters shaking in their boots thinking that if they do not reelect the encumbents they will be losing an emergency care facility, which of course is not the case.

What was he thinking?
It was interesting to watch the current board chair, Al Mirabella who is up for reelection this year, suggest that perhaps the rehabilitation dept should expand its out-patient services in an attempt to generate new revenue. A move of this sort could require a sizable cash investment as the administrator woefully admitted that the necessary space did not currently exist, and would have to be created. Support for this option did not appear to be enthusiastically forth coming from the county manager who remained non-committal on the subject when the board chairman attempted to gain his agreement; the finance committee members were quiet as well. A wise move politically when one considers that the budget hearings were intended to come up with ways to curtail spending and not increase the budget, perhaps Mr. Mirabella already has his campaign materials in the works trumpeting the successes of Runnells and is now confronted with a costly rewrite.

Booming Industry
It does seem odd that with the nursing home/rehabilitation industry booming because of the sheer numbers of elderly needing extended care outside of the family home setting that this facility isn’t raking in revenues. Perhaps Runnells is now feeling the impact caused by acute care hospitals in the area, such as Robert Wood in Rahway, who are offering extended stay rehabilitation on their own sites to include handling the paperwork thus sparing families the burden of having to relocate patients to other facilities.

Granted, sometimes it is necessary to spend money to make money but new projects which require changes to the physical plant certainly are not the answer at this point in time. Rather, an in-depth look for what is causing the hospital to once again run in the red is certainly called for.

However the argument can be raised that perhaps the all too brief stint in the black was a fluke and that there is no hope for recouping the millions of tax dollars that the freeholders have already invested.