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Opinion, Dave Dale column: Financial impasse blown up like a beaver dam

Like many of the beaver dams in the region that are swelling beyond capacity, the Cassellholme situation needed Ontario’s $65-M stick of dynamite in a bad way.
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Sometimes you have to blow up a beaver dam to let the pressure off and get the water to flow.

Among the best teaching tools are localized case studies and we have a fresh political example worthy of a thorough post mortem examination.

A key move was made Friday to end a financial impasse holding up the Cassellholme Home for the Aged expansion and refurbishment project.

Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli said the province has now agreed to guarantee the loan for its share of the long-sought upgrades and additions, most recently pegged at $120 million or so. A phased construction redesign at the existing site over five years will eventually see 24 beds added and the rest improved to bring the total up to 264.

Municipal partners, the largest being North Bay, balked at guaranteeing the provincial half of the debt with financing flowing through Infrastructure Ontario. They didn’t even want to be holding the provincial debt when the total project was estimated at under $65 million just several years ago, less so when it nearly doubled in size.

Liquidity is vital all the time and twice as much heading into turbulent economic waters. The COVID pandemic swamped the economic canoe and there are inflation white caps already hitting the shoreline. It’s understandable the province is reluctant to add to the Ontario total but truth be told, it shouldn’t fall to municipalities to pick up the provincial debt slack – especially for a long-term care facility.

Like many of the beaver dams in the region that are swelling beyond capacity, the Cassellholme situation needed Ontario’s $65-million stick of dynamite in a bad way.

See related: Fedeli makes game-changing Casselholme announcement

North Bay and East Ferris, the two largest partners in the nine-community district home, dug their heels in hard on the financing issue and questioned the board's handling of the issue. Several communities in and around Mattawa want out of the whole scenario once this is over.

Most municipalities felt there was a gun to their head as the board suggested the financing issues were lost and the partners had to bite the bullet. They didn’t like how the tender process attracted only one qualified bidder and they certainly didn’t appreciate a recent project flyer blaming added costs on municipal “dithering.”

Council reps resigned faster than they could be replaced with Mattawa Mayor Dean Backer and North Bay Deputy Mayor Tanya Vrebosch out. Vrebosch recently explained her move in a social media post, questioning the board’s governance and the procedures followed to create a new corporation. North Bay Mayor Al McDonald replaced Vrebosch but only lasted one meeting before resigning, with Councillor Bill Vrebosch (long-time East Ferris mayor and father of Deputy Mayor Vrebosch) jumping into the action. Also resigning over the pamphlet insult, as well as other concerns, was East Ferris Councillor Terry Kelly.

On the other side of the coin were Cassellholme Board Chairman Chris Mayne, along with fellow North Bay Councillor Mark King and Cassellholme executive director Jamie Lowery. They thought they had done everything possible to get the province to change its mind on the debt guarantee issue. All the marketing materials said the project was moving forward and they were equally frustrated the municipalities wouldn’t play ball. They also defend the tender process used and contend a review of the costing shows it’s a fair price considering the scope of work in current market conditions.

Cassellholme intends to raise several million toward the rebuild and they can start with selling tickets to an old-fashioned duel between King and Bill Vrebosch. Their public spat over the “dithering” comment in the project pamphlet and calling for each other to resign was epic.

See related: Cassellholme enthusiastic about lifting of loan guarantee

Fedeli’s announcement certainly makes the municipalities look like they played the smarter strategy by holding back their acceptance of the previous financing model. I wonder if they will now overlook the tender process qualms and cut some cheques for the Cassellholme project to begin. Mayne said the first chunk for municipal partners to cover between them is $35 million and the annual construction bills get smaller each subsequent year.

The case study on this would include how the chess pieces moved, specifically the past 12 months of a decade-long journey, and how things will move forward.

There was certainly room for movement on the file, provincially speaking, mostly because Fedeli is running for a fourth term for the Conservatives in the June 2 election. You’ve probably heard or read some of their campaign-style advertisements critical of both the Liberals and New Democrats, with both parties replying in kind. Silly season has begun.

The NDP candidate for the Nipissing riding is Erika Lougheed, an East Ferris councillor, and she hosted NDP Leader Andrea Horwath during a stop here a couple of weeks ago. Their main message was about improving on how the Conservatives are dealing with the overdose crisis.

Lougheed tweeted her reaction to the financing news on Twitter, noting it would have been a real “game-changer” if the province paid for the full rebuild: “Happy to see the bizarre guarantee clause removed. Never made sense that municipalities had to guarantee the province’s part of the loan on a loan from the province.”

See related: Dave Dale column, Cassellholme conundrum deserves closer look

It’s possible that Lougheed and the NDP are gaining some traction in the riding, enough to spur the Conservatives into supporting Fedeli’s reelection bid. Henry Giroux attracted more than 13,000 NDP votes in 2018, just 4,000 and a bit behind the Tory stalwart. And federal Nipissing-Timiskaming candidate Scott Robertson, a North Bay councillor, pushed the NDP over the 10,000 barrier for the first time a few weeks ago.

Keep in mind, the province went to school on how a far-right, anti-COVID-19 mandate party pulled votes away from the federal Conservatives. It may have been the deciding factor against Conservative Steven Trahan in his bid to unseat Liberal Anthony Rota.

It’s not like everybody has been impressed with Ontario’s handling of the pandemic, at least not consistently. Scheduling a reduction in vaccine passport requirements (if things are going well in January) is a signal they will do whatever it takes to avoid losing any part of their base.

No matter how it came about, Fedeli is probably feeling good about coming through in the end for seniors and their families concerned about long-term care issues, a major demographic in this riding.

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses related to his work can be sent to [email protected]. To contact the writer directly, email: [email protected] or check out his website