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Nursing home chief fired over too few patients

For two generations, the tiny Victoria Martin Nursing Home has been a mainstay of respectability in St. Petersburg's black community. The floors and beds were spotless, the food wonderful. And if you couldn't pay much, they would take you in when no one else would. The one thing longtime administrator Victoria Gaskin couldn't do well was make money. And for that she was fired Monday.

Frank Leeds, who represents the owners, said the home lost $83,000 last year because Mrs. Gaskin couldn't keep its beds full.

"It's hard to say anything negative about her, she's such a nice person," Leeds said. "But she wouldn't get out there and hustle for patients."

The 38-bed home needs at least 36 residents to break even, but has averaged 34 residents for some time, he said. "At 35, we're in trouble; at 34 we're in deep trouble."

Mrs. Gaskin, whose family owned the home for 27 years before selling in 1988, declined to comment. "I really don't feel like talking about it," she said.

Named after Mrs. Gaskin's grandmother, the Victoria Martin home opened in 1961 at 555 31st St. S. Victoria Martin, a St. Petersburg resident who conceived the home, died just before construction ended. Her children and grandchildren took over.

At the time, most nursing homes were segregated. Newspaper stories described Victoria Martin as "the first facility actually built as a Negro nursing home in Florida," pointing out that other nursing homes in black communities began as rooming houses.

With its warmth and willingness to accept charity cases, the home quickly drew white patients as well.

"Without question, the care was superior," said Fran Sutcliffe, an advocate for nursing home patients. "It was the attitude of the whole staff. They just cared about people. I would just as soon go there as anywhere."

Over the years, the home struggled financially. In 1981, it went into receivership until the black community rallied with fund-raising support, including a benefit by comedian Dick Gregory.

In 1988, the home was again strapped for money, so the family sold to an investment group led by Harry Clark. He also owns stakes in Shore Acres and Suncoast nursing homes in St. Petersburg and Bay-to-Bay Nursing Home in Tampa. All four homes are managed by Leeds.

Mrs. Gaskin stayed on as administrator.

Just before selling out, Mrs. Gaskins ran into trouble with the law by borrowing from patient funds to pay bills. When state Medicaid payments arrived, she would repay the money, but state investigators charged her with grand theft. Those charges were dropped through a pretrial intervention program.

Since taking over the home, Leeds said, his company has put in $70,000 worth of furniture, air conditioning, paint and kitchen equipment "and I lost my shirt."

Leeds said he plans to run the home himself for a while. The alternative to firing Mrs. Gaskin, he said, was closing the home.

"I made a commitment to her and to myself to keep the mission of this facility," Leeds said. "But that means keeping the doors open."