Photo by George Lauby
Pawnee Hotel assisted living facility
Photo by Stephanie Sitz
Photo by George Lauby
Director Sandy Schade in the lobby. (click on photos to enlarge)
Photo by George Lauby
The lobby, from second floor walkway, July 10.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has found deficiencies in the operation of the Pawnee Hotel Assisted Living residence in downtown North Platte and ordered hotel officials to present a plan to correct them.
The Pawnee appealed the HHS findings on Tuesday and has another two weeks to present its case, officials said.
As the Bulletin reported in late May, the historic hotel is beset with financial problems, including unpaid staff, property taxes and utility bills.
Director Sandy Schade said the hotel is battling hard and slowly making headway, and is accustomed to dealing with low revenues.
“We serve the low income population,” she said. “We are always that way. That’s the people we serve.”
Schade said the hotel is one of the few places in central and western Nebraska devoted to providing care to people with extremely low incomes, including those who are solely supported by Medicaid.
In late May, several employees and former employees told the Bulletin that they hadn’t been paid in more than a month.
HHS inspectors were at the hotel at the time and returned later to conduct follow up inspections, residents and employees said.
On July 2, the HHS issued its findings, showing that the hotel was behind on payroll as well as gas and electric bills. The hotel was dirty and dimly lit, meals did not measure up to nutritional standards, and the administration did not properly administer medications in some cases, the report said.
The 40-page HHS report details dozens of deficiencies and substandard practices, but says there is no immediate adverse affect on the health, safety or security of residents.
Financially, the Pawnee is about four months behind on utility payments to North Platte’s municipal light and water department as well as the gas company, Northwest Energy. The staff now takes the garbage to the dump themselves, the HHS said.
In conjunction with late paychecks, 11 employees (nearly one-third of the staff) quit the hotel in the spring, the HHS report says.
Employees who talked to the Bulletin said the building is deteriorating and a skeleton maintenance crew cannot keep up with repairs. Paint is peeling badly in some rooms and the roof leaks in at least one place.
There is mold and dust on some pipes, and some sinks and toilets leak, the HHS said. Ventilation is inadequate in some places and temperatures exceed standards at times.
Employees also talked about broken windows and sink drains that are stopped up. On occasion, sinks have overflowed when absent minded residents left water running, and water has seeped into rooms below.
The Nebraska Department of Labor is currently talking to employees about late paychecks, an employee told the Bulletin.
With the departures of employees, Schade told the Bulletin in late May that the smaller payroll was already improving the financial picture. She said the staff reorganization would be good and residents will not suffer. Each resident will have a “treatment team” of 2-3 staff members who communicate with medical professionals as well as the resident to make sure treatment plans are followed.
Through the years
The downtown landmark hotel opened on the eve of the Depression in 1929. For decades, the eight-story building was home to car, bus and train travelers. It was just three blocks from the Union Pacific train depot.
The hotel was converted to assisted living in the mid-1990s. It has a capacity of about 70 residents who live in individual hotel rooms.
The operation has been in financial straits for nearly a decade.
Residents typically pay slightly more than $1,000 a month for their furnished rooms, meals and care. That is nearly the same amount they paid a decade ago, and has not kept up with rising costs, especially fuel costs.
Frequently that money comes from the residents’ disability checks, which also have also remained nearly the same recent years, Schade said. In addition to room and board, residents who need extra care receive daily medications as well as help with clothes and baths, Schade said.
In 2004, city officials arranged a $15,000 low income housing grant and another $15,000 for an architectural study to see if the building could be restored to its original luster.
In 2005, the Pawnee Assisted Living Corporation was formed to own and operate the building. The corporation took over from Bob Parsons and his California-based management company that has facilities in the western states. Parson said he was losing money at the Pawnee. He first sought financial assistance from the city and finally turned the hotel over to local operators. Local investors stepped forward with emergency funds and a new board of directors was formed. The operations were led by Schade, who had worked there for nearly 15 years as a departmental director.
The new company began applying for non-profit, 501(c)3 status, which would allow it to receive more tax-deductible contributions.
That application is still not complete.
Schade said that in July the facility would start catching up on overdue bills and paychecks. She said restoration of the historic building is the long-term goal.
Improvments would be good news to an employee who said she loves her work despite the problems.
“Some of the bathroom ceilings are coming down and paint is flaking in shower walls,” she said. “We don’t have a housekeeper anymore. The care givers clean the resident rooms now, and they do it every other week, not once a week like we used to do.”
But she does not want to quit.
“I’ve been there a long time,” she said. “I love the residents.”
Residents come from all walks of life, ranging in age from young adults to seniors.
Valerie Mae Lemmer has lived at the Pawnee for 17 years. She graduated in 1980 from the North Platte High School and treasures her class ring. It is made of topaz and on it are symbols of the Bulldogs and her favorite sport, gymnastics.
Lemmer has a sense of freedom. “I like to go places, go shopping, go out to eat, and go to church,” she said.
Tracy Hatler arrived five years ago. She has a black cat that is important to her, and she would like to get a “kitty” tattoo.
Ray Klein is a retired farmer who raised wheat, corn, and cattle.
Resident Stephanie Sitz is a published poet in her mid-30s. She holds a masters degree in Literature.
Sitz said she is schizo-affected and has a hard time focusing on practical things but is getting better.
“I can study and write, but I need some help with living,” she said. “It’s been a community. It’s helped me be more social.”
“For myself, mental illness has related to behavior and safety and living,” Sitz said. “The hotel has brought great comfort in an alternative lifestyle kind of way. The in-house care and time have been of benefit for myself and my family.”
“It’s given me time to get on my feet,” she said. “It’s been comfortable here. I feel good. When I move out, I would like to go back to graduate school. I would like to become a teacher.”
One of the best things about the hotel is how they help disabled people find their own homes and lives, Sitz said.
Much of this report were first published May 30 and July 11 in print editions of the North Platte Bulletin. Stephanie Sitz contributed photos and comments by hotel residents.