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Town reluctantly pays health unit levy

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Fort Frances council unanimously decided Monday night to pay the levy increase it had been withholding from the Northwestern Health Unit since early spring.

“We’ve never been opposed to public health, we think it’s great. We just had some concerns at the administration end of it and hopefully we have rectified that,” Mayor Glenn Witherspoon said after council voted to send the health unit its extra money.

Fort Frances was the only municipality in the Kenora-Rainy River area that hadn’t paid the $1.27 per capita increase requested by the health unit although a number of municipalities had voiced concern over the hike.

The town had paid fees equalling the 1999 levy but their refusal to pay the roughly $10,000 required to cover the increase had become a contentious issue between the two sides.

In fact, Dr. Peter Sarsfield, the CEO and medical officer of health for the health unit, had threatened to sue the town for the money.

Council disputed the health unit’s administrative efficiency, and had asked for the health unit to reveal financial details earlier this summer but has yet to receive the information.

“I think, yes, we have the responsibility to pay the levy but I don’t think we’re out of tune in asking again what their plan is for next year,” said Coun. Dave Bourgeault.

Coun. Bill Martin, who sits on the health unit’s board of directors, had been pushing council to pay the levy. He also said there was some reluctance on the part of the health unit to answer the questions of council.

“The big stumbling block that I remember was the review of the financing and administration,” said Coun. Martin. “We could give you a projection but it’s going to be depending on what the senior [provincial] government does.”

As well as increasing its levy in 2000, the health unit also had dipped into its reserve funding--prompting concern from councillors here that the increase would continue unchecked year to year.

“It can be paid but we could be facing an increase next year of 17 percent,” warned Coun. Bourgeault. “There has to be an argument go forward from the council to the province of Ontario. Who is going to pay the difference?

“I don’t think we’re out of line in asking the questions that we’ve asked,” he stressed.

“We have to do something to make sure there is a concerted effort to let people know there is a problem in Northwestern Ontario in public health,” he added. “We need to make some noise with that. We can’t just sit here and argue the same thing in 2001.”

Avoiding further controversy, council voted to pay the levy but also passed a resolution that the health unit again be asked to reveal financial information, and requested a meeting be set up with the health unit’s chairperson.

“We need to stand shoulder to shoulder and say ‘Look, we are not meeting mandated services’ and I don’t think we’re going to do it any other way than standing shoulder to shoulder,” noted Coun. Sharon Tibbs.

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