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Zalan: In cash-strapped Ontario, city should take a page from HSN and pick its priorities

Dr. Peter Zalan normally writes about physical health and health-care issues. With an election around the corner, this month he’s talking financial health
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Dr. Peter Zalan

This column is not about health care. Rather, about our upcoming elections. I think every one of us should participate in determining the future of our community. 

So here goes.

Health Sciences North (HSN) has been in the news over limiting funding to the breast screening program. HSN staff held a rally protesting layoffs. Balancing hospital budgets is the law.

The provincial government has also been in the news, announcing a much higher budget deficit than the numbers provided by the former government. Ontario’s new Parliamentary Budget Officer was quoted in The Globe and Mail saying that Ontario has a debt problem. The province’s finances are not sustainable and won’t keep up with the rising health-care costs associated with the increasing population of seniors.

One can only assume that there will be significant cutbacks to services and transfer payments. It is not a far stretch to expect that municipalities may experience funding cutbacks as the province works at balancing its books.

This may therefore not be a good time to take on a lot of municipal debt. Sudbury may need to borrow as much as $300,000,000 to finance all the new planned projects. We already have trouble maintaining our existing infrastructure in working order. Consider the state of our roads. Our municipality has a limited tax base. It is difficult to raise donations. Property taxes are high when compared to other communities.

The many new projects on the drawing board sound exciting. Potential problems come in the future: interest payments on the new debt; maintaining operations of the new projects. Look at the problems announced by the Sudbury Symphony, Sudbury Theatre Center and Theatre Cambrian. They have asked for emergency funds from the city in order to keep operating.

It is worth considering whether this is a good time to invest heavily in new buildings. Could organizations share space and invest the savings in day-to-day operations? 

Health Sciences North is in the midst of developing a Capital Master Plan to decide how to invest in future projects. The choices are long: acquiring new technology; replacing worn out equipment; building a new NEO Kids facility; maintenance on existing buildings (HSN operates on 14 sites); introducing an integrated regional electronic medical record (EMR) system that would make the patient’s health information immediately available wherever the patient presented for care throughout Northeast Ontario. Just the tentative cost of the NEO Kids and the EMR projects are in the order of $70,000,000 to $100,000,000.

I am sure the city has a comparable list of its own. There are a lot of difficult decisions on the horizon.

The new council should review all the new projects. In fact, much as Health Sciences North, it should make a list of capital needs and then assign priority. Look at alternatives like organizations sharing space. Await provincial decision on transfer payment to municipalities. Decide how much debt the city should take on.

All the candidates running for office should declare their stand. We deserve to know.  

Dr. Peter Zalan is Past President of the medical staff at Health Sciences North. His monthly column tackles issues in health care from a local perspective. If you have a question for Dr. Zalan, email it to editor@sudbury.com.
 




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