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Loaning a hand

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The North Country Children’s Clinic has another opportunity to build a sustainable business plan thanks to the Watertown Local Development Corp.

Facing the prospect of not meeting its payroll, the clinic sought some emergency funding from the WLDC. The organization came through Thursday with a loan of $125,000.

North Country Children’s Clinic Executive Director Daniel A. Wasneechak and interim Finance Director Kelly Clark met Wednesday with Donald W. Rutherford, the WLDC’s CEO, and board member Donald C. Alexander. Mr. Rutherford and Mr. Alexander needed the clinic’s officials to address concerns about how the group will resolve its financial issues.

And there certainly are problems to fix. The clinic owes $187,000 to the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency and $184,000 to the WLDC, also known as the Watertown Trust, on loans previously made for the mortgage on the clinic’s building.

Mr. Wasneechak told Mr. Rutherford and Mr. Alexander that the gap loan will be repaid in October. The clinic will receive $275,000 in federal funding from a series of grants.

In addition to its financial obligations to JCIDA and WLDC, the clinic will owe a balloon payment of $474,000 to Community Bank on Jan. 1. Mr. Wasneechak said he plans to meet with bank representatives before then in hopes of refinancing the mortgage.

In relying on the willingness of others to help the clinic out, Mr. Wasneechak has a big advantage. He is new to his job, having taken over in August. He said he didn’t know about the full extent of the clinic’s financial condition until beginning his job.

This is a position that has seen some major turnover in the past 15 months.

Aileen G. Martin, who had served as the clinic’s executive director for seven years, resigned in July 2012. She was succeeded by Collene D. Alexander, who remained in the position for only three months.

No reason was given for the quick exit by either the clinic’s board or by Mrs. Alexander — who is married to Donald C. Alexander, the WLDC board member who recently met with Mr. Wasneechak about the emergency loan. Mr. Alexander also is the CEO of the JCIDA.

Janice L. Charles co-founded the clinic in the early 1970s with her husband, Richard E. Charles. Mr. Charles oversaw the organization as executive director until his death in 1981, and Mrs. Charles took over that position until she retired in 2009. She then served as interim executive director when Mrs. Alexander departed in October.

Mr. Wasneechak brings a fresh set of eyes to the agency, which will be crucial for it to move beyond its financial challenges. The clinic provides essential health care services to people in the north country.

But part of its problem has been its decision to become a federally qualified health center. This has allowed it to begin providing services to adults as well as children. To reflect this redirected purpose, the North Country Children’s Clinic is in the process of changing its name to the North Country Family Health Center.

While taking on an expanded role is commendable, this also requires more money. And government dollars have become harder to come by these days.

The sluggish economy in the north country doesn’t help fundraising efforts, so creating a larger budget to fill from both public and private sources takes much greater effort. Perhaps the clinic should have stayed focused on its original mission of providing services to children, who are the most vulnerable members of our society.

Having department heads at the clinic hire staff members on their own authority didn’t help matters either. Mr. Wasneechak has said any new hires going forward will need his approval, which is essential to providing the necessary controls to get over the clinic’s financial hump.

It’s good that the clinic received the funding it needs to carry out its operations in the short term. And Mr. Wasneechak’s presence should offer the independent judgment required to move the agency beyond this phase of struggle. Given some of the entanglements of the principals involved, this is a welcome development.

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