In a 3-2 vote, Sundridge council has approved its share of the annual municipal levy to the Eastholme Home for the Aged in addition to a one-time COVID-19 assessment levy. The decision to make the annual payment just squeaked through, with Mayor Lyle Hall casting the tie-breaking vote in the animated debate. Coun. Steve Hicks was very vocal in his opposition to paying the levy until his questions were answered. The debate at Wednesday's council meeting was carried over from council's March 10 meeting, where council deferred paying Eastholme anything until a representative of the nursing home came before council to explain the additional costs. In documents to the 14 member communities that contribute to Eastholme, the 2021 budget is set at just more than $12.6 million dollars, with the member communities accounting for slightly more than $1.4 million of that total amount. In addition, the municipalities were asked to pay an additional $128,220 this year as a one-time COVID-specific levy. In the case of Sundridge, its share of the annual levy worked out to $36,375, while the one-time COVID payment equalled $3,307. While Hall attended Eastholme's annual general meeting March 24, it was still his opinion that Eastholme did not make “any sort of attempt to communicate with us.” “I just feel someone could have acted in good faith and come to one of our council meetings and explain things to us and they didn't,” Hicks said. “So I'm quite frustrated and disappointed by this.” Hicks further said he was no longer interested in getting a visit from an Eastholme board member to explain the numbers to council “because they had a chance and failed to do that.” Hicks now wants to hear from the actual employees of Eastholme, the day-to-day management who are in charge of budgetary matters. Hicks was adamant council should still refuse to pay the annual levy plus the special COVID levy until this happens. A sticking point for Hicks was the special COVID levy Eastholme hit the communities with. Hicks admitted that Sundridge's share at around $3,300 was not a lot of money but he said he read the budget and saw that the province gave Eastholme a $1.5-million COVID-19 subsidy. Hicks wanted to know why there was “any kind of trickle down affect” to the municipalities asking for further COVID money when the provincial government supplement “covered all their COVID expenses.” “It seems just from their budget alone, that the money they received strictly for COVID relief covered all of that,” Hicks said. Hicks said it's making this kind of request of the municipalities that got him thinking how the entire old age home is being run. “I have no confidence on how things are being run there at this point or how they're being reported on,” Hicks said at one point in the debate, adding he didn't believe Eastholme was being transparent and accountable enough. However, Hall said he was in total disagreement with Hicks. Hall said the people involved with Eastholme are very professional and the organization just went through an audit. “We went through every line of their budget,” Hall said. “We went through two hours of discussion on this. I am very satisfied with everything that is going on there.
“I think we should pay them and move on.” But Hicks said he wasn't talking about the employees not being professional, and said it didn't matter that Eastholme had just gone through an audit because he didn't believe “there was anything nefarious going on” there. Hicks said for him it came down to budget oversight. Hicks said with an overall budget that approached $13 million and Eastholme having room for 128 residents, he said that worked out to about $100,000 per resident. “I don't feel good about putting a price tag on people,” he said. “But it's $100,000 per resident at Eastholme right now. What's it going to look like five or 10 years from now? And where is the money going to come from? It seems the Eastholme administration or board really doesn't have any questions about (this). Everyone just assumes that everything is being run properly.” Hicks said this kind of cost did not seem sustainable and he was “trying to ring the bell” to warn people about this. Hicks acknowledged that being the administrator of a seniors' home has to be a very difficult job but it was still his opinion that the facility was not being run efficiently, especially when the cost of the operation works out to about $100,000 per resident. Joining Hicks in not paying either levy to Eastholme was deputy mayor Shawn Jackson, who felt there should be more clarity before council agreed to send the old age home its share of the levies. Councillors Barbara Belrose and Stephen Rawn joined Hall to pay the 2021 levies. Although the vote passed, Hall did suggest that perhaps in the future a representative from Eastholme can still appear before Sundridge council to explain the budget.
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget