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Opinion: Dave Dale, Cassellholme conundrum deserves closer look

It's high time for the Cassellholme board and executives to break out the dog and pony show that should have performed on the municipal council circuit months ago – pandemic or not.
golden clock tower
It's time for the Cassellholme Board of Management to convince the public its redevelopment plan is solid, smart and makes sense cost-wise.

Time travel would be a helpful luxury when it comes to the Cassellholme East Nipissing Home for the Aged expansion and redevelopment. You could set the dial back three weeks, three months, or three years and always have a solid chance at a better parallel universe.

As it stands, we have a $122-million project weeks from a ground-breaking ceremony that might see more participants holding their noses than those fancy chrome-plated shovels.

The board for the district municipal-governed long-term care facility is broken down the middle like a karate-chop demonstration. The debt burden issue that stymied the project from the beginning didn’t go away, despite all efforts. Municipal and provincial commitments and promises just aren’t worth much, it seems, when a bank loans money. Collateral is king and one can not simply foreclose on an old folk’s home.

The issue became even more divisive with cost escalation doubling the estimated price tag after just four years. Also hard to swallow is the province’s refusal to put its share of the project debt on its own books.

A big chunk of the regret, however, boils down to broken communication channels and assumptions that filled the void. And at some point, we can have some fun picking the wings off those political flies. There’s always plenty of blame to be cast and fingers to be pointed.

In the meantime, those on the Cassellholme board of management who support plowing forward can help their cause by proving their plan actually holds water.

It’s not enough to say the tender was approved and we can’t back out now, even if it requires forcing municipalities to pay by levy.

The prevailing thought among some onlookers and reluctant accessories is that a new build elsewhere with a more inclusive tender process might save time, money, and headaches.

Basically, it would be a good time for the board and executives to break out the dog and pony show that should have performed on the municipal council circuit months ago – pandemic or not.

A little bird told me they might be doing some of that public affairs work starting this week and I have seen a few of the numbers they’re crunching. It’s some next-level spin mastery, for sure, but there’s a few good points to be made.

For example, what’s actually included in the $122-M total for a multi-phased build stretched over five years? And how does that compare to other options?

In the Cassellholme case, just under $1.9 M is broken out for the auditorium and adult day program section and $1.7 M to make resident rooms slightly larger than required. This is one facet that needs more attention because the public facility plays a bigger role in the community and should set higher standards. The whole Castle Arms senior living relationship with Cassellholme’s LTC synergy could also use better exposure.

Big-ticket highlights also show a $4.2 M contingency fund and $4 M for furniture, fixtures, and equipment.

Interestingly, they have about $2.7-M included as construction loan interest as the total borrow split between municipalities is about $105 M. (after deducting money in hand, fundraising, and about $10 M for starter cash from the province.)

Other notables are $1 M for redesign costs, $1 M for a mysterious plan for the North Wing, $2 M for HST.

When comparing it to the Waters Edge facility Sienna is building at the former St. Joseph’s hospital site, you’d want it to be apples to apples. All that’s publicly known is the $55-M project total announced last month. A wild guess at the cost of the land and fees might add another $4 M for a $59-M total.

As for Cassellholme, the numbers mentioned above (approximately $18.5 M) don’t relate to the Sienna project estimate so they will be deleted from the $122 M total.

Now we’re looking at approximately $104 M for Cassellholme’s 264 beds compared to Sienna’s $59 M for 160.

Cassellholme will still cost about six percent more per bed but the more favourable comparison is in the square footage of the facilities. Sienna’s footprint of 108,000 square feet is half the size of Cassellholme at 222,000, which gives the municipal project a nearly 11 percent edge.

That’s a fun turning-of-tables after the opposing sides made much hay of the lower costs associated with the private sector. We all know there are some politics at play when it comes to privatizing public services.

Last week, I suggested that they look harder at other locations and re-tender a different vision – if the Ministry of Long-term Care spikes the project for whatever reason. I thought there might be positives to gain and money to be saved by avoiding the staged process that requires multiple demolition periods.

I’m told every other site option was already studied and rejected, although I’ve never heard the details outlining the whys and what fors.

Of course, we also have to consider the $4 M already spent against any projected savings, plus whatever legal quagmire stems from the tender winner.

Most importantly, it would be good to know what the customers are thinking. Are five years of construction noise and disruption an issue?

It would also be interesting to poll the more than 200 people and their families on a waiting list for a bed at Cassellholme, as well as those heading toward those decisions.

Does it matter where and how the municipalities deliver LTC services or is it a matter of more and sooner the better?

And is another 1 or 2 per cent in additional property tax increases (for the rest of our lives) even an issue?

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