The Delta Sault Ste. Marie Waterfront Hotel was the scene of a great deal of activity Thursday.
Inside the hotel, the Standing Committee of Finance and Economic Affairs heard concerns and proposals from a long list of local individuals, organizations and businesses in pre-budget consultations.
The all-party committee is currently holding a series of pre-budget consultations across the province.
Outside the Delta, a group of approximately 40 people heard several speakers protest cuts to Ontario's healthcare system as the government prepares its 2016 budget.
Speakers from the Sault and Area Health Coalition, Ontario Federation of Labour, Sault Ste. Marie and District Labour Council and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) called for increased funding for reduced emergency room waits, surgical procedures, more beds, improved staffing levels, reduction in premature discharges of patients from hospital, improved home care and long term care.
"(Ontario Premier) Kathleen Wynne is trying to balance the budget on the backs of healthcare workers," said Vic Fedeli, Progressive Conservative MPP for Nipissing.
"In my city of North Bay we've had 350 cuts of front line healthcare workers, including 100 nurses, and in a brand new hospital we've just had 60 beds closed."
"The Auditor General told us we could have had the same amount of green energy and saved $9 billion if they used the old contract instead of the new format which rewards a lot of Liberal friends."
"The money is there (for health care), but Kathleen Wynne and the Liberal government continue to misspend it on things like the gas plant scandal," Fedeli told SooToday.
"Hospital cuts and direct operational funding has been one of the number one issues (in the run-up to the 2016 budget)…this will be the fifth year many hospitals have seen a funding freeze and this government cannot ignore the pain that's causing citizens any further," said Catherine Fife, New Democrat MPP for Kitchener-Waterloo.
"We need to pay attention to the Auditor-General…her report said privatisation of healthcare has been a huge issue for this government."
"At Community Care Access Centres for instance, only 61 percent of the funding that goes to those centres for home care and physiotherapy goes to direct patient care, the other 39 percent goes to profit and bureaucracy," Fife said.
Toronto-based Michael Hurley, Ontario Council of Hospital Unions president, representing thousands of hospital employees in Ontario, was on hand to make a presentation to the committee.
"Ontario has cut its rate of corporate taxation so that it now has the lowest level of corporate tax of any jurisdiction in North America, state or province."
While that is good for the business community, Hurley sees that as a problem.
"That has created a revenue problem which the government is addressing by effectively cutting, among other things, hospital services, so you're seeing big cuts in the Sault and other Northern communities."
"(People in the North are) much less likely to have a family physician than southern Ontario and much more reliant on hospitals to provide services."
Hurley said he would be stating, before the committee, the North feels the burden of those hospital cuts more severely because of its population and geography.
"What these cuts have done is force significant bed closures, program cuts and staff reductions that have further restricted access to healthcare, primarily to women, the elderly, the poor and children."
"We are saying to the government they do have an option, they can increase corporate taxes slightly (to increase hospital funding), they don't have to have the lowest corporate taxes in North America, they could be 50th out of 60 jurisdictions, and they could afford to be more generous with health and social services," Hurley said.
"The fact of the matter is…every year since 2003 the Ontario government has increased spending on healthcare in Ontario, and we're investing in a transformation to shift resources in an increased way to community care, more affordable care for home care services," said Sault MPP David Orazietti.
As far as funding to Sault Area Hospital is concerned, Orazietti said funding to hospitals has been "relatively flat…but the resources that are going into the community for other health care services continue to go up."
Mitzie Hunter, Associate Minister of Finance, will hold another pre-budget consultation with Orazietti on Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. at Algoma's Water Tower Inn and Suites.
Health care did not completely dominate the day's discussions at the Delta, however.
One of several presenters to the committee was Tom Dodds, Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation's chief executive officer, who urged the province to do what it can to help Essar Steel Algoma, the Sault's troubled largest employer.
“At this critical stage, the government needs to ask itself if it wants Ontario and Canada to continue to have a steel industry. Given that the sector is a significant economic driver with a large multiplier effect, the province of Ontario should do what it can to retain this industry.”