The dusty storehouses of Winchester Hall are seeing sunlight as part of a search to determine whether a particular financial analysis is mythical or simply missing.
The study in question could have shown that Frederick County's nursing home and assisted living centers would rely less on taxpayer dollars once they move into a bigger building. It might have projected that the new, state-of-the-art facility would attract more residents and result in fewer empty beds. It could have forecast how much additional revenue would come from opening a ventilator unit after the centers relocate.
But up to this point, the report's contents are a mystery because no one has been able to find it.
Many have argued that Citizens Care and Rehabilitation Center and Montevue Assisted Living could rise out of their deep operating deficits now that they have moved into a new building. Commissioners President Blaine Young says he'd like to know where these claims are coming from. But he said county staff can find no record that officials ordered an independent financial analysis of the centers before embarking on the $38 million project to construct the new facility.
To Young, the existence of such a report plays a key role in the debate over his board's controversial decision to sell Citizens and Montevue, which a private operator has renamed Odyssey Assisted Living at Montevue. Commissioners chose privatization to escape the financial burden of subsidizing the facilities, which have needed more than $53 million in taxpayer funds to stay afloat since fiscal 2000.
The study's existence has also become a point in his campaign against Jan Gardner, a Democrat who is squaring off against Young in this year's race for Frederick County executive. Young, a Republican, says his board has taken attacks for plunging headlong into various initiatives without giving them enough thought. But this criticism from Gardner and Commissioner David Gray rings hollow when they failed to order an independent fiscal review before committing millions of taxpayer dollars to the future of Citizens and Montevue, Young argues.
"You can't pick and choose when you want to be fiscally prudent," Young said.
At a public meeting in late April, when asked whether the county completed a financial analysis before approving the construction project for Citizens and Montevue, Gardner said she believed officials had.
Gardner in later interviews said she has been unable to track down an independent, pre-project study that describes how a new building would enable the centers to regain their financial footing. However, she said officials examined finances at the two homes on countless occasions during the time she was in office, from 1998 to 2010.
"Through the history of this last three or four boards, it was debated many, many, many times, and a lot of numbers were run on it," Gardner said of the facilities.
One of the earliest reports about the construction project was crafted by a blue ribbon task force in 2000. The task force found that the need for Citizens would continue long into the future, but noted that its existing home needed renovations and did not meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Building a new facility likely would be cheaper than fixing the existing structure, the task force reported.
A couple of years later, a design feasibility study by a contractor also suggested that a new building would be the most flexible and cost-effective way of addressing the deficiencies of the existing homes. A modern building with up-to-date insulation and mechanical equipment would also reduce day-to-day costs at the facilities, the report found.
Officials expected that a new facility would help lower vacancy rates, since the nursing home rooms would be more spacious and contain two rather than three beds apiece. Adding 15 beds to Montevue could also generate extra revenue, they anticipated.
However, none of the studies from the early 2000s estimated how much the new building could reduce the centers' operational deficits.
The board in 2001 discussed commissioning a study looking at the financial prudence of continued county ownership of the nursing home and assisted living center. Commissioners tabled consideration of the study, and county staff have been unable to find any trace of it after that point.
County commissioners, including Gardner and Gray, voted in 2002 to move forward with the project to construct a new building rather than renovating the old one. Officials broke ground was broken on the project in 2009, and the building's doors opened in 2012.
Rick Weldon, who was a county commissioner in 2002, said he doesn't remember seeing a comprehensive financial analysis. Not ordering a fiscal study was "shortsighted," he acknowledged, although he has supported the county's ownership of the homes.
"I would've felt better about it not being an intuitive decision and based on numbers, and we did not have that," Weldon said in a recent interview.
Don Linton, a member of the blue ribbon task force and the Citizens board of trustees, agreed that no single report mapped out how the facilities could become financially independent from the county.
However, Linton, an accountant, put together a two-page sheet showing the possible revenue that would come with the new building and said he provided the estimates to several boards of commissioners. According to his calculation, the building move could open up more than $4 million in annual revenue, an amount that would wipe out a significant chunk of the deficits at the centers.
"Three or four years ago, we were really anticipating Citizens would show a profit, and there's no reason it would not if the beds are filled," Linton said.
Gray said when commissioners approved the construction project, it was less a question of money than of continuing to serve the county's older citizens.
But over the years, Gardner said, county leaders thought extensively about how to make the centers more efficient. In 2010, for instance, a private consultant crafted a strategic business plan that considered the facility finances. Later that year, the consultant also reviewed staff salaries and benefits with recommendations for almost $250,000 in annual savings.
In 2013, another consultant study showed that by cutting costs and increasing occupancy, Citizens could pay its bills with some money left over to offset shortfalls at Montevue.
Gardner said Young's critique of past boards is hypocritical because he in May signed a lease agreement with the prospective buyers of Citizens and Montevue without conducting a financial review.
She also argues that selling the facilities for $30 million is far from taxpayer protection. The new buildings alone cost $38 million, a figure that doesn't include the land value and other assets, she said.
"Blaine Young has sold these brand new facilities at fire sale prices, giving away county land for free, and has not listened to the public," she wrote in an email.
Young said the county staff did complete an analysis of the lease agreement with the prospective buyer of Citizens and Montevue. The county manager said the rent charged to Aurora Holdings VII covers the county's facility maintenance and insurance costs and debt service on the building.
Follow Bethany Rodgers on Twitter: @BethRodgersFNP.