AUBURN | The speakers changed, but the message stayed the same: the merging of two Cayuga County nursing homes was not about politicians, administrators or employees.

It was for the good of the residents — both present and future.

During a ceremonial groundbreaking event Monday afternoon at Mercy Health & Rehabilitation Center's Auburn campus, 10 speakers described what the melding of Mercy and the Cayuga County Nursing Home would mean for the county's elderly residents.

The speakers joined the more than 100 residents, politicians and administrators huddled under a large white tent, keeping dry as rain incessantly tapped on the taut roof.

The celebration came less than four months after the Cayuga County Legislature voted 10-5 to merge the county nursing home with Mercy — a controversial move preceded by a year's worth of debates among politicians, nursing home residents and employees.

On Jan. 1, 2014, both the Cayuga County Nursing Home and Mercy will cease to exist. Instead, a new facility — owned and operated by Loretto — will be created using a $19.9 million HEAL Grant, and housed at Mercy's soon-to-be-renovated facility.

John Ognibene, administrator of Mercy, said that despite feeling sad about watching Mercy's history come to a close, he was happy to envision a new facility with "unlimited potential."

"It's a bittersweet time for us. After 42 years, Mercy will become a name of the past," he said. "We'll become a new organization, combined with the Cayuga County Nursing Home — two facilities with a record of providing excellent care for our residents."

Deb English, administrator of the county nursing home, agreed, encouraging doubtful residents and employees to consider the merger as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

"We want to deliver quality care in the most fiscally responsible way possible because it's not about us. It's about the residents," she said. "If we keep that as our focal point, and we look ahead to that, then we will be in a position to have everything else fall into place."

Legislator Mike Chapman, chairman of the Legislature, thanked Loretto, Mercy, state representatives and his fellow legislators for laboring on behalf of the county's elderly residents.

Echoing past statements, Chapman said that although he fully supports the merger, voting to close the Cayuga County Nursing Home was not an easy decision.

"If it was just about numbers, it's easy," he said. "But as Deb said, it's really about the residents. It's about the people. It's about our neighbors, our parents, our friends who need this service."

Before the people most instrumental in making the merger possible grabbed gilded shovels and posed for a ceremonial groundbreaking picture, the merger received a blessing.

Sister Kathy Osbelt, of Sisters with St. Francis, the order that currently runs Mercy, shared a prayer — a blessing she hoped would put the once controversial merger on hopeful footing.

"We stand at a sacred intersection, where Cayuga County Nursing Home, Cayuga County Legislature, Loretto, Mercy Health & Rehabilitation and the Sisters of St. Francis meet to create a new moment in elder care for the Auburn community," she said. "As we bless this ground, we set it apart."

Staff writer Samantha House can be reached at (315) 282-2282 or samantha.house@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @Citizen_House.

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