On Thursday, January 13th, Regional Council considered a number of important policies impacting the levy budget, which we expect to finalize this week. The levy budget consists of all Regional programs and services, regional operations, as well as the agencies and boards that are funded through the regional tax levy, otherwise known as the regional portion of your property tax bill.
One policy on the table was a hospital funding formula, which was proposed in response to a funding request for the West Lincoln Memorial Hospital. The funding request was also considered at this time.
For context, Regional Council had known for months, if not years, that a funding request would come forward. The municipal councils of Grimsby, West Lincoln and Lincoln had all committed local tax dollars in the amount of $26 million for the hospital build. The West Lincoln Memorial Hospital Foundation Board (WLMHF) had requested a $14 million-dollar regional contribution.
Also, of important note is that Regional Council had committed funds to the St. Catharines hospital build years ago at a rate of 18% of the local contribution. The WLMHF disputed that the amount was actually 21% and therefor was entitled to a minimum of $12.6 million dollars.
With this in mind, and recognizing that these funds are public tax dollars that need to be allocated in a responsible and fair manner, Council committed to developing a funding formula to address the request and also prepare the organization for future hospital funding requests expected to come in the near future. A consultant was hired to do research and recommend options for consideration. A preliminary funding model was approved by Council back in November. Senior management staff had worked tirelessly since that time, and in collaboration with the consultant to develop a scoring matrix that took into account many factors to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of public tax dollars but also to evaluate the WLMHF funding request through the lens of the funding matrix. The matrix identified an upper limit of an 18% funding contribution and recommended $9.072 million towards the project.
With this information in mind, Mayor Jordan of Grimsby and Mayor Junkin of Pelham, put forward a motion arguing in favour of dismissing the work of the consultant, the work of regional staff, the direction of Council, and arbitrarily awarded $12.6 million dollars to the WLMHF. The motion was approved.
In recognition of the importance of being accountable and transparent for how we spend public tax dollars, I tried to salvage the work done developing a policy for future hospital funding, which failed. Had the funding policy been approved, the Region would have had the most comprehensive and robust hospital funding policy across Ontario. Instead, Council opted to arbitrarily set a funding policy at a maximum of 21%.
This was probably the most disappointing Council meeting I have ever attended. As Pelham’s regional representative, I take my position very seriously. I am charged with the public’s trust. I have a responsibility to ensure your tax dollars are spent responsibly and efficiently, not just for Pelham but for the entire Region. I am also responsible to act in the best interests of the corporation, to ensure that I wear a “regional hat” and hopefully leave the organization in a better place (financially, operationally, culturally, et al.) than when I first took my seat. That is my duty as a public official and that is the duty of all Regional Council members.
There were very few regional hats voting on that day. There could have been some that felt in principle 21% is a valid number. However, I would argue that most acted in the interest of their respective municipality knowing that it would set a precedent to access future regional dollars. Not surprisingly, most of West Niagara voted in favour despite championing the need for a funding policy early on. Niagara Falls will bring a hospital funding request in the near future, so more money for this hospital means even more money for that project (which means a regional contribution that could be in excess of $54 million dollars). Similarly, Welland could be asking for funding as well, which may also involve a financial ask for the Town of Pelham.
In reflection, I can live with the decision to award WLMHF $12.6 million dollars. I am one vote. Council is a collective. If $12.6 million is the will of Council than I accept that. However, I take issue with two very important points here.
One, local municipalities shouldn’t be required to fund hospitals in the first place. Hospital funding is a provincial responsibility and yet the Province requires local funding of 10% of the construction costs in addition to covering the cost of equipment. The Province has broad taxation power such as sales tax, income tax etc. The cost of a hospital spread across a population of 14.57 million people is minimal, potentially a few dollars or cents here and there. Municipalities have one revenue source ie. your property tax bill. To fund a hospital through property taxes is expensive and costly to a much smaller tax base. For those of us in Pelham, the hospital funding will be part of your regional share of the property tax bill. For those in Lincoln, West Lincoln or Grimsby, it will form part of both your local and regional property tax contribution. At best this is Provincial downloading. You could also argue this is a form of pay for access health care. If a local municipality can’t come up with 10% construction costs or funding for hospital equipment, does that mean they can’t have access to a local hospital or an X-ray machine? It’s ridiculous. The Province should pay for that in which it’s responsible for.
Secondly, there was a real opportunity here to leave the organization with clear funding policy direction, to leave the organization better off than when we got here, and to ensure the funds were spent equitably and responsibly. The consultant we hired cost public money. The time staff put in to work with the consultant also cost public money. With the action taken by Council at this budget meeting, that money was figuratively flushed down the toilet. I find this completely reprehensible and insulting. I know how hard the people of Pelham work to earn a living. If we’re asking for tax dollars it should be because every dollar is needed. This was a waste of everyone’s time and money to land on an outcome that appears to have been predetermined.
It’s not often that I am critical of a Council decision, but when something like this occurs, I feel it needs to be brought to the attention of the public. I hope this Council takes much greater responsibility over their use of public funds in the future and will continue to fight on behalf of responsible spending for our residents. And I urge the Province to reconsider downloading the cost of hospitals onto municipalities when it falls entirely within their mandate.