Health centres fear tax freeze

By Matt Graveline

City Hall Bureau

Local health centres’ programs could be restricted even though City Council has voted to continue last year’s funding levels for social services.

As appealing as a tax freeze may have sounded last fall, it will mean financial struggles, say the executive directors of Centretown’s two health centres.

Both Somerset West Community Health Centre and Centretown Community Health Centre went before council earlier this month to petition their cases to the city.

They told council that failing to raise taxes will hurt the services they provide to the community, forcing them to cut some services.

Jack McCarthy is the executive director of Somerset West Community Health Centre, which serves about 13,000 people in the Centretown area. He says it already has shortcomings in its services.

“We already have to turn away eight families a day from the parent/child drop-ins,” he says.

Without an funding increase, he says the working hours of social service workers will be limited.

McCarthy says this limitation, along with others, is the reason he gave the city a formal budget submission outlining the need for more municipal funding. He says he hopes city councillors take his submission seriously.

“We have 10 different sources of income, but the city is the second biggest [income source],” he says.

For the centre to maintain its services, McCarthy told council there would have to be a two to three per cent increase in property taxes this year. Without the increase, he says, the centre would have to cut services.

The increase, which would help many centres get on track, would cost each Ottawa taxpayer $50 annually, McCarthy says.

“Our services create less of a burden on the city because we keep the members of our community strong, vibrant and healthy and that is the type of people that makes our city great.”

Earlier this month, council voted to retain last year’s funding for community groups and social services due to the support structure the groups provide.

“It’s great to hear that the city recognizes our services, but we still will have to find more money,” says Marguarite Keeley, executive director of the Centretown Community Health Centre. McCarthy called it a de facto cut that would not address the main financial needs.

At consultations last week Keeley asked the council for an additional $60,000 to $70,000 to solve inequalities in staff salaries.

While the province covers some salaries, some staff are paid with city funding. Recently, the province raised the salaries of provincial workers after a study showed that staff were underpaid.

After hearing from the delegations Somerset Coun. Diane Holmes expressed her dissatisfaction with the mayor’s tax initiative.

“I need to see options. Options other than a zero per cent increase,” she said. “I see us going into the reserve fund and that is a problem.”

The centre is asking for $45,000 to equalize the salaries of the municipal and provincial employees. Other extra costs facing the centre include higher rent for the building and extra funding for a program to continue running.

Keeley says that 6,000 people came through Centretown Community Health Centre’s doors last year and 11,000 people signed up for its services.

The public delegations and the split in council over funding has city staff preparing two draft budgets, one with O’Brien’s tax-freeze and one with two per cent inflation.