Municipalities call for audit on health unit

The words were a little less sharp Saturday when the Northwestern Health Unit made its plea to local municipalities to continue making monthly payments necessary to pay for public health in the Kenora and Rainy River districts.
But the calmer tempers didn’t stop the Rainy River District Municipal Association from calling for an independent audit of the health unit.
Nor from directing its executive to meet with the board, in conjunction with the Kenora District Municipal Association, to discuss the health unit’s $64 per capita levy and the payment format.
And it didn’t stop the health unit from reiterating that its $400,000 reserve fund was depleted, and that municipalities now were legally responsible for public health. And if they didn’t pay, it was threatening to take them to court.
“Public health is only one of the ‘downloaded’ responsibilities that municipalities are responsible for funding,” said Ingrid Parks, chair of the health unit’s board and also mayor of Keewatin.
But she noted it was the first to send invoices–and fight for payment.
As of Saturday, 21 of the 22 municipalities in the two districts had paid their January bills. And the one that hasn’t paid yet had indicated it would be soon.
Though the invoices were based on preliminary estimates, the health unit board will be meeting Feb. 3 to discuss its 1998 budget. And Parkes stressed the board would do what it could to try and trim some costs.
“I can’t say for certain if we can. [But] 1.7 percent could be a magic number,” she pledged, noting that’s the amount municipalities were told to pare from their 1996 budgets to access transitional funding from the province.
Meanwhile, bills for February have been sent out, and Parkes was optimistic there would be a little less fight for payment this time round.
But while tempers cooled and January’s bills are all but paid, municipal leaders still have questions they want answered. La Vallee Coun. Emily Watson wondered why the levy for the unincorporated areas was different than that being billed to municipalities.
The total unincorporated contribution for both districts is $1.2 million and will be paid by the province for 1998. In past years, though, 30 percent of the health unit’s $4.5 million budget ($1.35 million) has been picked up by the unincorporated areas.
The problem, explained Dr. Pete Sarsfield chief medical office for the health unit, was there wasn’t an accurate population available for the unincorporated areas.
He added that is one of the bills the health unit is still trying to collect from the province.
“We’re not allowed to bill First Nations,” he added.
Coun. Watson also noted the levy in Thunder Bay was close to half that being charged here at $35.
“If we were to go to three offices . . . our levy would definitely go down,” Dr. Sarsfield replied, noting the Thunder Bay health unit was very centralized.
“I feel strongly that we have been set up in that the province handed over responsibility to you without giving you the resources,” he added.
Atikokan Coun. Gary McKinnon noted municipalities were looking at borrowing money to pay the bill, adding he felt Dr. Sarsfield used the press to “kick sand in the faces of municipal councils” by publicly threatening legal action.
“I think it would have been more productive to call and explain it to municipal councils,” he said.
“I had no choice but to go public,” Dr. Sarsfield countered, arguing the health unit only received legislative authority Dec. 10 to send out bills.
It had sent out advance notices both in October and November, he noted, stressing they’d got back “nos.”
“We had no money [on Jan. 4]. I was batting zero for 22.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Sarsfield said he would welcome the audit, warning it probably would show the health unit would require another $500,000-$1 million to meet the new mandatory service requirements.
“His cheques are probably a lot bigger than mine but I would maybe bet mine that it would come back in our favour,” Fort Frances Mayor Glenn Witherspoon joked.
While the municipalities will be footing the bill for the audit, Coun. Watson felt the money would be better spent there than on legal fees.
“Maybe they are on the right track. I don’t know and you don’t know,” Mayor Witherspoon added, but he felt the audit would answer that.