Tea party values threaten 185-year legacy of serving the poor in Frederick

Robert McCartney
Columnist November 20, 2013

In 1828, when Frederick County purchased 94 acres from farmers Elias and Catherine Brunner to build an almshouse, the deed stipulated that the land should be “for the benefit of the poor” and “for no other use, intent or purpose whatsoever.”

Ever since, the county has provided some sort of public service for the needy on the site. At present, it features the nearly brand-new Montevue assisted-living facility with 60 beds for the indigent elderly.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

But the 185-year-old legacy may be coming to an end.

Tea party-inspired county commissioners have voted to sell Montevue and an associated nursing home to a for-profit company. The new owner wouldn’t have to accept any more older residents who can’t afford assisted living and don’t have any place else to go.

For commission President Blaine Young (R), the sale’s leading advocate, Frederick can’t afford to subsidize Montevue and shouldn’t be in the business of running such facilities.

“We just feel it’s not a core function of county government,” Young said. He dismisses concerns about violating the Brunner deed, noting that some of the land is now used for an animal shelter and for county snow-removal equipment.

“Poor people have animals. We plow the snow for poor people as we do for rich people,” said Young, a local businessman best known for hosting a daily conservative radio talk show. (The commission job is part time.)

Young’s attitude does not sit well with many Frederick residents, who are rightly proud of the county’s history of ministering to the underprivileged. They have formed a coalition to try to block the sale in the courts, on the county zoning board and with the state Board of Public Works.

Opponents say that Young and his allies sabotaged a plan that would have made Montevue and the Citizens Care nursing home self-sustaining within two years. They also say the commission is selling the facilities at a bargain price in a bad deal for taxpayers.

“The county has always said since the 1800s that it will have a place for the poor, the unwanted and the unwashed of Frederick County, and they have maintained that up to now. This tradition and commitment should be continued,” Joseph Berman, a retired state health official, said.

Berman was a member of the Board of Trustees of Montevue and Citizens Care until Young and other commissioners abolished the board to proceed with the sale.

Over the years, the former Brunner property has been the site of a mental institution and a hospital, as well as the “county home” for the poor. It served veterans following the Civil War and tramps during the Great Depression.

During segregation in the first half of the 20th century, a clinic there was the only place in the county where an African American woman could have a baby in a hospital.

The site began providing mainly nursing home services during the 1950s, and a separate, assisted-living facility opened in 1987. Last year, a brand-new building opened to house both.

The new facility was designed in part to attract more patients and revenue to the nursing home, which serves paying customers. That would offset the deficits incurred by the assisted-living facility, which serves mainly the poor.

But the plan was stymied a year ago when the commissioners began moving to privatize the operation. Young said the financial plan was not realistic and under the best-case scenario taxpayers would have to cover losses of $2 million a year.

The former trustees sharply dispute that. Melanie Cox, a retired senior executive in the long-term care industry, volunteered to study the numbers and sided with foes of the sale.

Cox said the new, larger nursing home would generate at least $1 million a year more than necessary to cover the assisted-living facility’s deficits.

She also said the county was selling too cheaply to the new owner, Aurora Health Management . The sale price is $30 million, compared with the $38 million that the county paid to build the new facility.

“It’s a very lucrative contract for Aurora. It’s not a good contract for the county,” Cox said.

For Young, the fight to privatize Montevue is in line with the tea party values he championed when he won the commission presidency in 2010. He said that while his enthusiasm for the tea party has waned — partly because of last month’s federal government shutdown — he remains committed to shrinking government.

I think ideology is blocking good sense. Montevue and the nursing home should get a fair chance to balance the books as planned and continue to serve the destitute as the well-meaning Brunners intended.

Thanksgiving will come early this Sunday as I announce the region’s “Turkeys of the Year.” I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.
com/mccartney
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