Almaguin municipalities experience sticker shock after seeing their share to build hospitals in Bracebridge and Huntsville
That's how South River Mayor Jim Coleman is reacting to the dollar amount the Village is being asked to donate as its share to build two new hospitals in Huntsville and Bracebridge.
Known as the Muskoka Algonquin Health Care project, the price tag for the twin build could hit $967 million because work is not expected to begin until 2027. Additionally for the hospitals to be built, under a Ministry of Health cost-sharing formula, several municipalities in the District of Muskoka and 12 communities in the Almaguin Highlands have to put up $225 million as their share of the project.
However this amount is cut to $112.5 million because the area hospital foundations and Muskoka Algonquin Health Care will cover half the municipal share. Because the 12 Almaguin communities are being asked to cover nearly 10 percent of the municipal share, their total is $11.25 million over 12 years. Each municipality's dollar share is based on .0034 percent of its total assessed property values.
In South River's case its total assessed property values in 2021 were calculated at $71,525,700 meaning its share for the hospitals is $247,500.
South River's Clerk-Administrator Don McArthur said if council agrees to contribute its share over 10 years rather than 12 the municipality has to set aside nearly $25,000 annually meaning the municipal budget has to include an extra two percent every year for 10 years on top of whatever else the budget would increase over the ensuing years.
With a population of only 1,101 people to spread the local amount, Mayor Jim Coleman called South River's share “pretty pricey”.
Coleman suggested perhaps South River can donate an unspecified amount as its contribution and say “it's all we can afford''.
Deputy Mayor Bill O'Hallarn also noted that most South River residents go to the North Bay Regional Health Centre and not the Huntsville hospital to the south and questioned why the Village was expected to ante up a significant share for the twin build when it won't be used much by locals.
If hospital usage is a problem for South River over what it's being asked to pay, it's even more magnified for Magnetawan which sits in proximity to the hospitals in North Bay, Parry Sound and Huntsville.
Despite this, Mayor Sam Dunnett said his municipality is being asked to make a contribution as if Magnetawan residents use only the Huntsville hospital. Magnetawan faces the highest contribution at $2,452,500 among the Almaguin communities because the assessed total for all its property values in 2021 was $711,934,009.
Dunnett said Magnetawan council is currently discussing its 2023 budget and because of inflation is looking at a possible increase of 5 percent to 5.5 percent.
“If you add the hospital build, you're looking at another 4 to 4.5 percent tax increase,” Dunnett told the Nugget.
“That's going to be on an annual basis for 12 years. And if you're going to sign a resolution dedicating that amount of funds for 12 years, you might as well submit your resignation because it's not going to be acceptable”.
Dunnett says before council formally debates what it will contribute, the municipality is going to put out a Survey Monkey “asking residents where they get their healthcare”.
Dunnett says a similar survey was carried out about 20 years ago and revealed that a third each of the residents went to North Bay, Parry Sound and Huntsville for medical services.
He wants to know if the numbers have changed and expects the results by the end of March.
Dunnett adds the updated results will help the council rationalize a donation amount. Dunnett wants it understood Magnetawan wants to contribute something but asking it for nearly $2.5 million is unreasonable.
Dunnett also says he told Armour Mayor Rod Ward that Almaguin's total municipal share of $11.25 million is “way too much”. Ward has been representing the Almaguin communities at the hospital project discussions and he's told the Almaguin Mayors if all the communities in the catchment area can't commit to a share of the twin build by this fall, then the project is dead.
However, Dunnett believes this is fearmongering and it's a way for a government, regardless of political stripe, to download costs onto municipalities.
Sundridge faces a similar problem that Magnetawan and South River do in terms of where the Village residents get medical attention.
Mayor Justine Leveque says about half of the municipality's people get medical treatment in North Bay while others head to Huntsville. Leveque adds Sundridge also has a medical centre of its own with two physicians who treat residents of Sundridge, Strong and Joly.
“We need to acknowledge how this impacts local taxpayers and our medical centre,” Leveque said, adding the Village needs to discuss the impact jointly with Strong and Joly because of the close proximity of the three municipalities.
Deputy Mayor Shawn Jackson suggested that the local share of the contribution be cut in half to account for the fact that about 50 percent of Sundridge residents use hospital services in North Bay.
So far, only Armour and McMurrich/Monteith have passed resolutions agreeing to donate the requested amount as their municipal share for the twin hospital project.
The Town of Kearney is expected to introduce a motion addressing its share sometime in the near future, but not before it holds an open house where Ward will explain the project to taxpayers and how the individual municipal shares were arrived at.
Kearney faces the third largest contribution at $1.3 million which is the same amount as Armour has agreed to pay.
At a March 2nd council meeting that Ward also attended, Kearney Mayor Cheryl Philip said many residents she's talked to know very little about the twin hospital project. She hopes the open house increases public awareness so there are no surprises when council eventually votes on the issue.
“I know when the hammer comes down and we make the motion, they're going to be here saying what are you doing and why,” Philip said.
“We need to reach out to taxpayers and they need to learn about this now.”
Ward plans to visit all the Almaguin councils over the coming weeks and one of his proposals to make it easier for town councils to accept their local share is a suggestion to hold back 20 percent of the Almaguin share and only send 80 percent of what's raised for the twin hospital project.
Ward is telling the town councils this 20 percent will be applied to health care services in the Almaguin Highlands.
“We don't know where it will go, but it will be for health care services in Almaguin,” he said.
Ward says the 20 percent would be applied anywhere in Almaguin giving the area a say on how some health care dollars are spent.
Ward is also telling the town councils that the hospitals won't be duplicating services which explains why two hospitals, and not one, are being built.
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
, Local Journalism Initiative, The North Bay Nugget