June 25, 2014

Hospital funding prompts talk of leaving county

As published in The Erin Advocate

A committee vote to support donations now totalling $9.4 million to three county hospitals has Mayor Lou Maieron saying that Erin should leave Wellington County and join Halton Region.

“This is a Wellington County screw job – we’re going to have to look at some other relationship,” he said, after the county finance committee unanimously supported donations to county hospitals, but rejected bids for smaller donations from non-county hospitals that serve many Erin residents.

The mayor does not know if Halton wants a new northern territory, and acknowledges it is a decision only the province can make. But he says, “It would be the end of Wellington County.”

Erin would account for just 2.2% of Halton’s population, but benefit from its huge commercial and industrial tax base. Also, regions are responsible for sewage, while counties are not.

The current dispute stems from provincial funding for expansion of hospitals in Fergus, Mount Forest and Palmerston. Ministry of Health policy requires, however, that 10% of new hospital costs (and 100% of equipment costs) be raised at the local level.

Donations from the county, which are completely optional, would be added to the extensive fundraising efforts in communities that have the hospitals. Warden Chris White said the current policy of not supporting hospitals could be changed when necessary, noting that the county has provided millions of dollars to Guelph and Wellington hospitals over the last 30 years.

The mayor continues to protest Ontario’s property tax assessment system, over which the county has no control. Since Erin, Puslinch and Guelph-Eramosa are close to the GTA, their property values are higher and their residents pay a higher share of all county expenditures, not just hospital donations.

Erin has 12.4% of the county population but pays 15.5% of costs, meaning Erin residents will contribute $1.4 million to the hospitals. Puslinch and Guelph-Eramosa (which like Erin do not have hospitals) will pay similar amounts, but their county councillors are not campaigning against the hospital funding.

“It’s very difficult to justify,” said Maieron to the committee. “Do we fund hospitals that serve our residents or do we fund hospitals within our borders?"

Based on the original $9 million request, Minto residents would contribute $558,000 through the county, and their hospital would get $2 million. Wellington North would contribute $855,000, and their hospital would get $2 million. Centre Wellington would contribute $2.56 million, but Groves Hospital would get $5 million – in addition to the $5 million already pledged by the county for that hospital in 2003.

Maieron concedes that he and Councillor Ken Chapman will likely lose the hospital fight in a vote of 14-2 at the full county council meeting tomorrow (Thursday) at 10 am, but is urging Erin residents to show their support.

He did get a resolution passed at last week’s town council meeting, opposing the donations and reiterating that hospital funding is not a municipal responsibility.

“I’m tired of being one of Wellington County’s cash cows,” said Maieron. He was backed up by Councillor Josie Wintersinger, who said, “It’s high time that we push back.”

Councillor John Brennan said that in hindsight, council’s recent decision to split $10,000 among hospitals that do serve Erin, primarily Orangeville and Georgetown, was a mistake. He said the province is “shortchanging” poorer communities by forcing them to raise 10% of new hospital costs.

Councillor Barb Tocher was alone in opposing the resolution, noting that there is an established precedent of the county supporting hospitals. She supports the county donation, saying the loss of a hospital due to lack of support would be “absolutely devastating” to small communities.

“We’ve got to stop being so small-minded, looking at just we and us,” she said. “Hospital care is seamless. If we keep our hospitals in our county of Wellington strong, and every community in their counties or regions keep their hospitals strong, it won’t matter what hospital you go to. They’ll all be strong.”

Maieron points out that none of the local municipalities getting hospital upgrades are contributing tax dollars to the projects. Halton Hills has provided $2.7 million for the Georgetown hospital. Dufferin County has approved $500,000 for the Headwaters hospital in Orangeville, the first phase of $2 million requested over four years.

Georgetown hospital is nearing the end of a $6.5 million campaign to pay the local share of rebuilding their Emergency Department, renovating their Diagnostic Imaging Department and installing a CT scanner, and was asking Wellington for $100,000.

Headwaters hospital has already raised $14 million of the $16 million needed for a major expansion, and was asking Wellington for $115,000. Erin residents needing emergency care go to Orangeville 42% of the time, Georgetown 24%, Guelph 11% and Fergus 6%.

Louise Marshall Hospital in Mount Forest and Palmerston and District Hospital both need help to upgrade aging facilities and buy required equipment. They have increased their requests from $2 million to $2.2 million, over five years.

Groves Hospital in Fergus held a ground breaking ceremony last week, just before the committee meeting, to start construction of a new $100 million hospital that is expected to open in 2017.