AP NEWS

David Ormsby Nathaniel Witherell — the case for ther status quo

April 2, 2019

Your recent front-page article (March 24, “Report focuses on future of Nathaniel Witherell”) questioning the future of Nathaniel Witherell was incomplete and unfortunate in several respects.

It quotes Arthur Norton who, although no longer a member of the Board of Edstimate and Taxation, chairs the BET’s Strategic Planning Committee examining National Witherell’s future as stating “Witherell survives on getting a grant from the Town of Greenwich.”

That also happens to be true of other institutions which collectively make our town a special place in which to live, work, play, raise a family and retire, including Greenwich Library, Bruce Museum, the Board of Education, the Greenwich Arts Council, GEMS, the Griff Harris Golf Course and our ferry system to Great Captain’s Island and Island Beach, to name just a few.

Nathaniel Witherell has been a Greenwich tradition in its care for the elderly and infirm for more than 100 years. For many, Witherell represents a final support system for our frailest and most vulnerable citizens when home care is no longer an option. Today, residents of Greenwich over age 100 occupy 13 of our 202 beds. Our separate 40-bed Dementia Unit houses our most severely affected dementia and Alzheimer’s residents.

The cost of operating this skilled nursing facility for the benefit of Greenwich citizens is relatively modest —currently less than 1 percent of the town’s operating budget. Nathaniel Witherell ranks with our schools, housing authorities, museum, libraries and recreational facilities as valued quality of life amenities, which collectively distinguish our community. It also reflects our town’s long-standing sense of social responsibility for our infirm seniors and their families.

More than half of Nathaniel Witherell’s long-term residents are affected by various stages of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Caring for loved ones under these circumstance is invariably a physically exhausting and emotionally draining experience for family members and caregivers.

Fortunately, we have in place a skilled and sympathetic nursing staff to share this burden within a few miles of every home in Greenwich. Rarely a day passes when we are not touched by a letter of heartfelt thanks for the quality of care provided to a loved one in his or her final months or years. Our enthusiastic and vibrant volunteers (300 strong and many of whom are youngsters from the various schools in Greenwich) who last year contributed more than 11,000 hours of their time and energies to enriching the remaining lives of our residents learn a valuable lesson in civics, compassion and respect for the elderly at Nathaniel Witherell.

Will a Planning Committee of the BET propose an option which provides for this support to continue? The consultant to the Planning Committee has already overlooked the role that the Friends of Nathaniel Witherell plays in permitting tax-deductible contributions for the benefit of Nathaniel Witherell by caring individual and corporations.

The Friends is a fundraising corporation with a board of community leaders which (i) has raised more than $4.5 million which was contributed directly to the town for the construction of our revitalized facility; (ii) played a leadership role in procuring an additional $4.6 million in state grants and tax credits for that construction project; (iii) funded the new Friendship Garden at a cost of $165,949 and; (iv) over the last 12 years raised another $3,262,678 from contributions, bequests and special fundraising events all of which has been invested in the quality of life for Witherell residents.

Will this type and level of support continue if Nathaniel Witherell is no longer owned and operated by the Town of Greenwich? We are told that one of the options being examined by the Planning Committee is the conveyance of Nathaniel Witherell to a not-for-profit corporation.

The committee appears to hope this step will permit a reduction in the wages and benefits of the staff, many of whom have worked at Witherell for more than 30 years. Under state law, employees of a municipality are prohibited from striking and there has never been a work stoppage at Nathaniel Witherell in its 115-year history. That law does not apply to employees of a not-for-profit corporation. In the event of an emergency or disaster as a town department, Witherell has the ability to call upon the full resources of the town. Will that continue to be the case if is owned and operated by a third party?

In 2007 our Representative Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly that the town should continue to own and operate Nathaniel Witherell in essentially its present form. Since that decision the town has invested $30 million in improving and modernizing Witherell (including creating a 46-bed Short Term Rehabilitation Unit) pursuant to that directive. Yet today, the BET would now spend money on consultants and endless hours of internal debate on the subject of taking Nathaniel Witherell in new, unknown and unknowable directions.

David Ormsby is chairman of the board of directors of Friends of Nathaniel Witherell.