BELVIDERE, N.J. - Warren County, New Jersey's nursing home, Warren Haven, is one step closer to possibly being sold.
The Warren County Freeholders authorized a real estate firm to begin seeking suitors to purchase the county-owned nursing facility at a tense meeting Wednesday that saw dozens of residents pack the town hall in protest.
Marcus and Millichap Real Estate Investment will now begin advertising and appraising the property, located at 350 Oxford Rd., Oxford, in the current market.
The freeholders, however, stressed that this does not mean the facility is ready to be sold.
"This vote tonight is not a sale," said Freeholder Edward Smith. "It's just that we are having a broker that's going to formally appraise and see if there are buyers. We're looking to find if there are people who are interested."
Smith added in an interview that the property had been initially appraised around $8.3 billion, but that its true market value was still to be determined.
"[Marcus and Millichap] gave a suggestion as to where they think the market might be," he said. "Someone may say [Warren Haven] is worth something but that doesn't mean there's a buyer interested at that price."
This and other answers though did not quell the palpable frustration in the room though as 26 different public comments were made over the course of the night, most of which heavily criticized the potential privatization of Warren Haven.
The 80-minute meeting was marked by roughly an hour of public comments and exchanges with officials on the issue, where residents criticized quality of care, administrative decisions and more.
Dozens stood outside the packed-to-capacity town hall to listen and voice their opinions.
"I don't think they're really answering the questions," said Warren Haven union president Tracy Smith after the meeting. "I think they're running around things. I know they have a job to do but they also should be listening to the people voicing their opinion. They're the tax payers."
Smith said union and county officials will meet on July 1 for another negotiation session aimed at lowering the pension costs and wages that have encumbered Warren Haven's finances.
In an emotional moment, Tammy Kelson read a statement prepared by Warren Haven resident Debbie French.
In the statement, French spoke of recently being diagnosed with cancer and wondered whether she would be treated with the same quality of care by the nursing facility should the county cede control over it.
"We should be taken care of by our own," Kelson read from French's statement., to rousing applause from the audience. "Ask yourselves: Who do I want taking care of my loved ones?"
Citizens also clamored for a non-binding referendum on the issue, the only method of referendum available in New Jersey for these matters.
But Freeholder Smith said even if the referendum rejected privatization, the county would not have any way to fill the deficit.
"Even if it was a yes, I have no way of financing it," he said.
Residents countered by claiming the county spends too much money on land purchases.
"It amazes me that you can't cut somewhere else, and the land is the biggest thing I see," said one resident in attendance. "I mean how much land do we need? I would give all of that land and the land that you plan on buying to save Warren Haven."
The Freeholders insisted that their inability to save Warren Haven was due to rising pension costs, reduced state and federal funding and New Jersey's two-percent cap on tax increases that prohibits counties from exceeding that limit.
The freeholders were frequently heckled by the rowdy crowd, which they routinely asked to be quiet down. The board utilized a three-minute timer to keep public comments brief.
Officials characterized the contentious meeting as "challenging" but thanked the community for the input nonetheless.
"I appreciate everyone's cooperation tonight. If anyone thinks [this is] easy, it's not. And we have done what we can to try to be able to maintain services across the county. I fully understand a lot of the apprehension and thank you for your participation."
Freeholder Jason Sarnoski also maintained that the board had the residents' best interests in mind.
"I know not everyone will understand and may never understand why but we really do have the best interest of the residents of Warren County at heart," he said.
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