Selling Citizens and Montevue: Smart Move or Senseless Decision?

By on September 30, 2013

Photos by Anastasia Tantaros 

Jennifer Peppe Hahn

Jennifer Peppe HahnIt seems premature to sell the Montevue Assisted Living and Citizens Care and Rehabilitation property before Fort Detrick completes the mapping of its carcinogenic plume. Though the initial investigation is almost complete, it is not over. A plume tracking study, which may or may not involve this property, is still underway. While scientists speculate this will probably not be an issue, they also believed the plume would not be detectable in Carroll Creek, but it was. The primary discharge area for the plume is directly behind the Montevue property.

In 2008, Fort Detrick’s Area B was placed on a superfund list by the United States Environmental Protection Agency because of an “imminent and substantial threat to public health and safety.” The threat references a plume of perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE), volatile organic compounds that are not completely soluble in water. They form Dense Nonaqueous Phase Liquids (DNAPLs), gelled together pieces of toxins that get stuck between the fractures in bedrock.

Over the years, these DNAPLs slough off into groundwater and become part of its flow. This action has created a plume found miles awayfrom Area B. Starting west of Area B, and flowing east, the plume discharges into surface water behind the Montevue facility and Rosemont Avenue.

By the time the plume reaches surface water at this corner, contaminant levels are considered low, yet still high enough to warrant current and further testing. Each minute, 1,100 gallons of water run into the plume’s primary discharge area along Carroll Creek, including the seeps and springs bordering the Montevue and Citizens property. Levels of PCE and/or TCE will be detectable there for years.

The sale is moving forward, yet Aug. 28 marks the first time a city or county official that has voting rights on the subdivision or sale of this land has attended a Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meeting in the two years I have been present. William Ryan from the Frederick County Planning Commission and Alderman Carol Krimm attended. Most city and county officials are simply not paying enough attention to the matter, and a few 10-minute phone calls between representatives and Fort Detrick do not justify vacant chairs at these four-hour, quarterly meetings.

These meetings, hosted by Fort Detrick, offer an in-depth explanation of the remediation process. We are still mapping the plume and assessing the levels of contamination. Concerning Montevue and Citizens, these levels were high enough to merit vapor-intrusion testing on the old Montevue building before allowing county employee housing in that facility. At the Aug. 28 meeting, we were told they found contaminants at the sub-slab level — very low, non-worrisome levels, which is good news. The problem is that we are moving forward and making decisions on this land before other answers are received. It is irresponsible to sell that property or subdivide that land before all the necessary information classifying this plume is acquired.

This plume is not going to magically disappear. According to May 2013 RAB minutes, the Montevue and Citizens land pieces will require long-term monitoring, and we can see spikes and changes at the discharge area over time. Until all test results are complete and signed off, I wouldn’t want my name on a vote to sell. I vote that those in charge of my health and safety learn as much as they can about this toxic situation before giving their stamp of approval to pass this land along.

Jennifer Peppe Hahn is a Frederick County native who sits on the RAB of Fort Detrick. She owns Touchwaves Therapeutic Massage and resides in Brunswick with her family.

John L. (Lennie) Thompson, Jr

John ThompsonThe Board of County Commissioners’ decision to sell the Citizens Care and Rehabilitation Center and Montevue Assisted Living facilities was correct. It is rare when our elected officials take an action that they know ahead of time will be politically unpopular but will be in everyone’s long-term best interest. They need our support on this one, regardless of disagreements we may have on other issues.

Maintaining the status quo (and the multimillion dollars of taxpayer subsidies the facilities receive each year) would be the politically safe choice. However, there is a reason the overwhelming majority of Maryland counties no longer operate an “old folks’ home” as they were formerly known. It is not for a lack of compassion. With the advent of Medicare and Medicaid, nongovernmental firms are providing the service. Frederick County has eight other licensed nursing homes that do not receive millions of dollars per year in subsidies from the county taxpayers.

Until now, successive boards of county commissioners used taxpayer funds to underwrite the operating losses at Citizens and Montevue. Anyone who dared to question the subsidies risked the usual charge of being insensitive to the elderly and, in the views of one former columnist, a murderer. Human nature suggests that if an economic entity knows that taxpayers will cover its operating losses, the entity lacks any incentive to avoid operating losses. At one time, the staff at Citizens made little effort to pursue reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid. They had no reason to do so.

In 2000, the Citizens Board of Trustees needed to hire a nursing home administrator. At the time, the average salary of licensed nursing home administrators across the state was $150,000. Paying someone that amount was politically impossible, since the administrator would have been the highest paid person in county government by far. Citizens ended up hiring an unemployed nursing home administrator who was willing to take the position for half that amount. Bells and whistles should have gone off, but they didn’t. His tenure was a disaster for Citizens.

The county’s “one size fits all” compensation policy was not conducive to the health care field. Many in the field know they will not spend their career at the same place and, therefore, will never qualify for a full retirement. They prefer a high salary now rather than a high retirement package later. Nonetheless, the county insisted a compensation package offering comparatively lower salaries and comparatively higher retirement benefits that most Citizens employees knew they would never receive. As a result, Citizens had the highest employee turnover rate in county government.

For better or worse, health care facilities that, like banks and fast-food restaurants, are part of a chain will have a competitive advantage over a single, “stand-alone” facility. In general, members of a chain receive the benefit of economies of scale that comes with centralized accounting, information technology, payroll, legal and management services. As stand-alone facilities, Citizens and Montevue do not have the economies of scale that their competitors have. Montgomery County — the center of the universe of wild, big spending and big government politicians pandering to every conceivable interest group — does not operate an “old folks’ home.”

If Montgomery County — which otherwise provides cradle to the grave protection for everyone, for everything — chooses not to provide a government service, their example should be sufficient evidence that Frederick County shouldn’t provide the service either.

John L. (Lennie) Thompson, Jr. is a former member of the Frederick County Board of County Commissioners and maintains memberships in the Bar Association of Frederick County and the Maryland State Bar Association.

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