Nine candidates running in the October 22 municipal election for Mayor, Town and District Council, and Brunel Ward fielded questions on everything from affordable housing and healthcare to water quality and waterfront development at an All-Candidates Forum on September 20 hosted by the Huntsville Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce.
(Note: Town and District Council candidate Lillian Fraser was absent. The candidates in Chaffey Ward, Jonathan Wiebe, and Huntsville Ward, Karin Terziano, are acclaimed. Candidates in Stisted, Stephenson, Port Sydney Ward will participate in a forum on September 27.)
Just one question was posed to the Mayoral and Town and District Council candidates at Huntsville’s All-Candidates Forum regarding Muskoka’s hospitals. It came from audience member Dave Wilkin, a former Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare (MAHC) board director and current member of Community Advocates for Hospitals and Healthcare for Muskoka and Area (CAHHMA) member.
“My question is around the hospital future debt burden,” said Wilkin. “As you all know, recently the MAHC Board passed a two-site plan and in that two-site plan it basically was built around assumptions for new build or rebuild. That pushed the price tag up to around half a billion dollars. Given that, and that 25 per cent of that—not 10 per cent as mentioned by a few—25 per cent of that would be $125 million would be the local share burden. My question is, is that a reasonable amount, is that affordable, and is 20 years too long a time frame to look to get results?”
Mayoral candidate Peggy Peterson replied, “Healthcare is a critical issue and our hospital is a critical part of our community. What I have seen and one of the reasons I wanted to be the next mayor is I think we need a very strong voice that will say to the Province, enough. Stop threatening to close our hospitals, stop threatening to reduce our services, Huntsville gets a hospital, Bracebridge has a hospital, that is how it has to be. There is enough funding, it’s just being controlled by people behind a desk on the sunshine list. We need to go and say we want a reallocation of funds, we need a new funding model,” she said. “I love health hubs, they are going beautifully but here’s the problem with health hubs: the Province is downloading the costs of healthcare onto the municipalities and onto fundraisers. The Province of Ontario is responsible for the mandate of healthcare…,” she added before running out of her allotted time.
Incumbent Mayor Scott Aitchison’s answer came next: “No, it’s not affordable and it’s not reasonable to expect municipalities like Huntsville and Muskoka to fund that burden. So, multi-faceted answer to your question is, it’s important to stay involved on this task force as we come to grips with how we will redevelop these hospitals of the future. The original plan was to build either brand new facilities or one brand-new facility, I don’t think that’s entirely necessary, I think that our hospital is a fantastic hospital. It needs some renovations, some updating, it doesn’t need to be torn down and started all over again. So that’s number one. Number two, I think that the District of Muskoka through our tax base is probably going to have to come to the table to some degree. I am in support of that, I have been in support of that, we are currently levying $600,000 a year to help with existing capital programs for the hospital and I think we should continue to do that,” he said, adding, “(Bracebridge) Mayor Smith and I at the AMO (Association of Municipalities of Ontario) actually lobbied the minister not just to keep our hospital open which she agreed with that we need two acute-care sites…” before running out of time.
During rebuttal, Aitchison had time to complete his statement with, “…Mayor Smith and I spoke with the minister and said we don’t have the massive commercial industrial base here that they have in places like the GTA. You cannot possibly expect the people of Muskoka to come up with 25 per cent. That’s simply unfair, you’re killing small-town Ontario.”
Town and District Council candidate Bob Stone, who currently represents Huntsville Ward, said, “So, I want to let the task force do their work and give us some real numbers, and we’ll find that out in part 1B about what actual redevelopment is going to happen and how much that is anticipated to cost. If the numbers are as huge as you say, we absolutely cannot afford that but we absolutely should do all we can so District money should play a part and town monies should contribute as much as we can without hurting what we do already.”
Tim Withey, Town and District Council candidate, responded to the question with: “The short answer is that number is astronomical and there’s no way that with our tax base that we can afford that. I think in the long stretch to get to Stage 1A answer there was a lot of numbers thrown around and a lot of fabulous new buildings being contemplated where they are just simply not necessary. We have certainly in Huntsville plenty of land and a building that can be renovated. If you’re looking for an example, just take a walk around Orillia’s Soldiers’ Memorial (Hospital). That building’s been added on to many times over the years. There are easier, more affordable fixes for these things. Hopefully Stage 1B won’t take as long as Stage 1A did and the amount of money it cost to get there because that could probably go to better use as well in our healthcare system.”
In later rebuttal, Withey added, “I just wanted to make a brief point of context. We are about to embark on the redevelopment of Fairvern Nursing Home, which is a brand new facility with 96 beds in it which is mostly housing seniors and end stage of life. Now granted, it’s not a hospital with not all the bells and whistles but it is still a healthcare type facility. That 96 bed brand new building, the cost of that is $30 million.”
Incumbent Town and District Councillor Nancy Alcock said, “No, I think that $125 million is a lot of money and I don’t think it’s affordable. So I think the question is very similar to the last response which is we need to look really carefully at what needs are for the two sites, whether it’s an expansion or if it’s a new build, but I think more affordable options as to what that redevelopment looks like is quite possible. I would echo what the last respondent just said.”
Town and District Council candidate Helena Renwick said that she would also echo what has been said by other candidates and added, “That number is, there’s no way we can afford that. I don’t know at this point exactly what is going to happen, is it a rebuild, is it an add-on, so until we have those numbers I don’t think saying it’s going to be $125 million, we can’t afford that for sure. So I think we support what the task force is doing. They are at the second stage of their negotiation and their reports. I think they’ve spent half the money at this point, so not the full million dollars. So we go forward and we decide on what we can afford when we get those exact numbers.”
Brian Thompson, incumbent Town and District Councillor, replied, “I think one of the monetary issues that has come to light through this whole restructuring process and the two-site hospital issue has been the fact that the funding model for our hospitals on an annual basis is just not correct, it’s just wrong and it’s wrong not only for MAHC, it’s also wrong for 21 other communities and medium-sized hospitals in the province. So this is also an issue when it comes to rebuilding. I think the MAHC board, they were very clear in a couple of issues when they were addressing council with regards to where we go with this and that is that this becomes a political issue, and I think with what our mayor has just said and with Mayor Smith from Bracebridge now on the AMO Board this is going to go a long way towards fixing the financial structure not only for rebuilds but also for operations.”
The question was not posed to the Brunel Ward candidates.
Watch for more coverage from the Huntsville All-Candidates Forum on Doppler.
Watch the full debate here.
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