St. Mark’s future debated

Published 11:56 am Saturday, August 16, 2008

A summit meeting of sorts takes place Monday at St. Mark’s Lutheran Home.

Austin’s largest residential care facility and one of its largest employers is at a crossroads over Ecumen, the senior housing management firm whose three-year-old contract is due to expire soon.

In a letter to the St. Mark’s Lutheran Home board of directors, seven department heads raise issues they would like the board members to address.

Email newsletter signup

The issues include, but are not limited to, Ecumen and local control.

“A group of concerned departments heads would like to have a face-to-fact meeting with the entire board,” the letter dated Aug. 6 begins.

“We would like to disacuss some proposals, thoughts and ideas we as a group have for St. Mark’s Lutheran Home,” it continues. “We would like to talk specifically about Ecumen, local control with the administrator and quality of care.

“This meeting is for the benefit of St. Mark’s residents, employees, the community and corporate churches,” the letter concludes.

It was signed by Linda Grover, housing director; Barb Rollie, laundry/housekeeping; Gale Siegfreid, dietary director; Heather Rysavy, activities director; Michelle Knode, Kenwood director; Pam Solberg, spiritual care director; and Bob Armon, maintenance director.

The letter sounds more inquisitive than confrontation.

Marty Helle, an Austin attorney, is president of the board of directors.

He said the meeting will be held and that it fulfills a “pledge” made by the board members.

Ecumen is one of the nation’s largest non-profit senior housing firms for administrative services, according to Helle.

A strategic planning meeting was held with department heads, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and other employees, Ecumen representation and the board of directors.

“I made a pledge to the department heads to meet with them,” Helle said.

The board president declined to call the Monday meeting anything but “a follow through of our pledge to meet again.”

Helle disputed the suggestion that the board of directors has relinquished control to Ecumen.

“We don’t take orders from Ecumen. They take orders from the St. Mark’s board,” he said.

He said operating a nursing home is a “very complicated business” and said Ecumen’s assistance helped deal with those challenges.

Helle said, as the board president, he will treat Monday’s meeting as a “fact-finding mission.”

As far as he is concerned, the top three issues are quality of care, finances and employee morale.

“We’ve got to take care of our people,” he said.

As far as St. Mark’s finances, Helle said the nursing home recorded a half-percent loss this year after a small profit last year.

“We finished in the black,” he said. “Of course, as a non-profit, we aren’t supposed to be concerned about making a profit while taking care of our residents.”

Employee morale, Helle indicated, is bolstered by a worker turnover lower than the state average.

St. Mark’s has 129 state-licensed beds. It employs 13 department heads, 50 RNs and LPNs and 172 other employees for a total of 235.

Ten members from corporate ELCA churches serve on the board of directors.

In addition to nursing home beds, it offers assisted living and apartment facilities for the elderly. More than 100 volunteers assist employees, serving residents.

The Rev. Barbara Finley-Shea, pastor of one of the corporate churches — Our Savior’s Lutheran Church of Lyle — wrote a letter to the board members Aug. 8.

Finley-Shea’s letter urged the board members to remember the sign over the entrance to St. Mark’s Lutheran Home: “Behind these doors are Austin’s finest employees.”

“The employees of St. Mark’s are local people invested in our community, invested in St. Mark’s, who can and already have accomplished much,” the pastor wrote. “Let’s now see what new things they can do.”

Helle and the other board members want to see that, also.

Christine Harris, Ecumen’s interim administrator, declined comment.