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Opinion, Dave Dale: Optics are half the battle … sometimes more

I really don’t want to be the skunk at the garden party, but ... maybe tone down the slush fund celebrations. We're not there yet.
cassellholme party northern occasions facebook photo
Churchill's Restaurant, decorated for the Cassellholme staff appreciation dinner Nov. 18.

It probably wasn’t wise of the Cassellholme management staff to wine and dine at Churchill’s Restaurant last week. The two remaining North Bay council members on the Cassellholme board, Chris Mayne and Mark King, also attended.

All of them certainly earned a celebration after a challenging year of turbulent politics set between pandemic waves — just a tough time to be in the long-term care home business. A top-shelf spread for dinner on fine linen is a good way to recognize everybody’s extra effort to make it this far. I can taste and smell the table wine now, a nice dry red is my first choice but it stains my choppers.

Plenty of boards and public entity non-unions do something similar, union executives often follow suit, it’s normal business to justify a budget that’s within certain bounds. Can’t go too far, there’s always an appropriate ceiling set depending on circumstances.

I’ve been to a few myself while volunteering on executives. A nice chow down and some free libations are sometimes appreciated very much.

You probably wouldn’t want to have one that’s extra opulent when the board is overseeing employee labour issues, like the college board for example. I don’t even want to know Canadore’s plans, it’s just an example of where a board might not want to go swanky this time around.

Of course, who gets to say what’s too much and when?

The Cassellholme consideration involves a major split on perspectives with municipal partners over a $120-million redevelopment and expansion. Later this week or soon, they are sending out the first wave of levies that councils have to swallow, like it or not it seems. Just a few weeks ago, the mayors protested both the process and plan with an urgent appeal to the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care.

In a nutshell, three North Bay elected officials either resigned or stopped short of joining the board over a litany of issues this year.

A slap in the face came when Cassellholme marketing material blamed “dithering” municipal councils for more than $2 million in cost escalation.

When this kind of conflict is simmering in the background, with the board admitting that rising costs are a problem worth noting, you’ll get knickers in a knot if any expense seems excessive.

Not positive you can compare boards precisely, they all get their funding from different ways, although it all comes from the same pocket eventually — yours. I was told the city Christmas party is basically BYOB&M (buy your own beer and meal) and the health unit is a lunch of some kind.

I just hope a whole bunch of the restaurants that barely survived the economic tsunamis as restrictions ebbed and flowed, like Churchill's, get some of the celebratory benefits this season. They could use some of the group dinner business while the pandemic restriction window is open, for the time being anyway.

Cassellholme chairman Chris Mayne, North Bay council appointee, said it was a “staff appreciation dinner … to recognize everyone’s efforts during the last year managing through the COVID-19 situation.”

He said it was not paid for by public dollars.

“The evening was for Castle Arms Management Services, which generates its own revenue, and did not spend any public tax dollars.”

Jamie Lowery, Cassellholme executive director, said the management services corporation was set up to raise revenue to cover the home’s care. He said they charge other organizations for their expertise helping them set up and sometimes manage their facilities.

“Our current revenue is greater than $7,000 a month with four to five projects in place,” Lowery said, adding some of the ideas for the revenue include “updated furniture, entertainment equipment and specialized care assistance in the form of extra help beyond the current funds available to us.”

He added that there is “donor fatigue almost everywhere,” and they wanted to do something to make up for shortfalls, capitalizing on the executive skills and corporate infrastructure already in place.

Sounds creative and very likely progressive.

And I really don’t want to be the skunk at the garden party. Honestly, I commend the initiative. I’ve seen several corporations split off into revenue-generating machines by jobbing out the talent from the original body.

I just have to say, if you’re going to have a long-term care operation supported primarily by public dollars, you have to tip-toe a little bit around the fertilizer.

No use beating the dead horse over the sole-sourced marketing campaign and solo tender bid winner. I’m sure both things can be debated and no doubt will be raised ad nauseam. Things tend to add up over time in these parts, though.

There’s a lot of talk about optics and what it means to be aware of how things might look in the near term as well as down the road.

“We also have plans to host a Christmas even for front-line staff that involves meals, prizes, and virtual party,” Lowery explained.

That’s good, if there’s any wealth at all it should be shared as much as possible.

But there’s another factor, and that comes down to focusing first on resident care. Last month, I had another resident’s family member contact me about grievances they had at Cassellholme. For as hard as it’s been for all the staff, it’s been a hard time to be needing 24-hour care — a lonely and stressful endurance for both residents and their families. I know a few who will never forget how their loved ones suffered due to pandemic-related neglect in homes, including Cassellholme, and they are not likely to forgive when given the COVID-19 excuses.

When I worked at a daily newspaper, we often had people complaining about their experiences at pretty well most of the homes for the aged.

This particular gentleman was an old acquaintance who enjoys my writing and the way I approach some topics. Not all, he doesn’t agree with me very often, actually, but I don’t limit my circle to fans only — it would be a short list if I only knew agreeable souls.

I felt bad that I didn’t get involved at all as he was hoping for coverage. I may have back when I was a reporter and not just a weekly freelance columnist.

But it seems suitable to bring up here. It was about his wife being medicated too much and at the wrong time. He often had to complain about nurses doping her up after lunch and before their afternoon excursions.

As a 74-year-old with a bad back, it was difficult for him and his sister-in-law to lift her out of the chair to bring the elderly lady back to Cassellholme. When they did arrive, there was an elderly woman whose wheelchair was jammed in the doorway.

“She was crying out for help,” he said, adding she was back in there again as they were leaving and there was nobody else in sight — except for a half-naked woman running around on the first floor.

“I wondered where was the staff … over the last two years, on many occasions, both my sister in law and myself have witnessed zero staff on the floor especially after supper time.”

We all know it’s been a real struggle to maintain a smooth operation and meet expectations of care during these times. Meanwhile, family members of people in long-term care are right to be upset if staff or management are not laser-focused on providing the best care possible. So you’re going to get criticized if anything seems a bit far from standards.

And fairly soon, Cassellholme will be entering a five-year construction zone as they rebuild and expand in stages and wings, with parking lots oscillating the grounds.

All efforts will have to go to managing care.

It certainly could be doable, this creation of a management service arm contracting internal expertise out to cover expenses not otherwise funded. But some would suggest it prudent to tone down the slush fund celebrations a bit, we’re not there yet.

There’s a large number of people who have doubts about where this project is going. There will be scrutiny and many eyeballs watching attached to people with memories of other projects going sideways.

And the first thing they’re going to be chewing on is the dinner tabs.

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 editor@baytoday.ca. To contact the writer directly, email: davedale@backinthebay.ca or check out his website www.smalltowntimes.ca