Mayors from five of northern Ontario’s largest urban centres are calling on the Ontario government to abandon its plans to consolidate 34 public health units in the province into 10.
In a March 24 letter to Premier Doug Ford, mayors from Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Timmins, Thunder Bay and North Bay say the plans to amalgamate health units and shift more public health costs to municipalities could lead to a deterioration of public health services.
The consolidation of public health units would see Algoma Public Health merge with Muskoka, North Bay, Parry Sound, Sudbury, Porcupine (Timmins), Temiskaming, and part of Renfrew as part of a larger push to amalgamate all health units in northern Ontario into just two health units serving northeastern and northwestern Ontario.
“We think that that could threaten public health capacity, and it’s clear that we really need to invest in public health - and really, the pandemic demonstrates the need for proper public health infrastructure and proper public health coverage,” said Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Christian Provenzano, who authored the letter to Ford on behalf of northern Ontario mayors. “And we do not believe that a reduction of the number of units that we have now in northern Ontario to amalgamation into lesser units would be beneficial.”
The Ford government’s 2019 budget included plans to consolidate its 34 health units into 10 larger regional agencies, and reduce provincial funding by $200 million a year.
The City of Sault Ste. Marie contributed roughly $2.5 million in the form of municipal levies to Algoma Public Health in 2020. Currently, the province shares public health costs 70-30 with the municipality.
Provenzano says additional public health costs for the municipality brought on by public health modernization plans will trickle down to Saultites in the form of increased property taxes, which is why northern mayors are asking the province to continue to carry its original, pre-pandemic share of the public health costs.
“Part of the Ford government’s plans is to shift the ratio so the municipality will carry more and more of the public health costs, and the province will carry less and less of the public health costs. That’s a problem, because the municipality doesn’t have the revenue generation tools that the province has, and our municipal tax levies are already stretched,” said Provenzano. “So if you take more public health costs and shift it from the province into the municipal levy, all that’s going to do is increase everybody’s property taxes.”
The province put out a pair of discussion papers on its modernization plans for public health in 2019, but those plans were essentially put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“We’re mindful of the fact that at some point they’ll be revisiting this, and we just wanted them to have our position formally before they did,” Provenzano said.