Despite investing billions in health care, education and other programs that will benefit Niagara — including a new hospital — the Ontario government’s 2017 budget could have done a better job of meeting the needs of residents and businesses, opposition MPPs say.
But St. Catharines Liberal MPP Jim Bradley is pleased with the budget tabled Thursday by Finance Minister Charles Sousa, which includes funding for a new south Niagara hospital “for which I have been advocating relentlessly for the past few years,” he said in a prepared statement.
The balanced budget also includes an additional $11.5 billion for health care, with a $7-billion increase to current funding, a children and youth pharma-care program, education investments including grants and a program to make it easier to repay provincial student loans, and enhancements to social assistance programs.
Bradley also lists Niagara investments including the redevelopment of 160 long-term care beds in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the new Wellington Heights Public School in Pelham (an addition to formerly named E.W. Farr Memorial), and the services at Beachcombers Senior Citizens’ Association in Ridgeway.
“Our government’s plan will continue to develop a stronger economy, a better quality of life and a brighter future for all Ontario families,” Bradley said in his media release. “The decisions we are making are fair, responsible and ensure that all of us play a role in building a stronger and brighter future for all residents of Niagara and people across Ontario.”
While post-secondary students will likely applaud changes making education more affordable, Niagara College was given reason to celebrate as well.
In a prepared statement, college president Dan Patterson said he’s expecting an additional $10 million in funding this year, as well as improved access to apprenticeship training, and the development of a new website to provide employers, students and their parents with more information about careers and the labour market.
Patterson said he looks forward to “working with the government to explore new opportunities to help more people pursue and complete apprenticeship training.”
“More students will be able to acquire professional and technical qualifications to pursue rewarding careers,” he said. “This budget affirms the pivotal role colleges play in student success.”
Others, however, felt the budget left a lot to be desired for the region.
Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce expressed disappointment that it didn’t include more to help business, or address the province’s debt.
“In the current economic climate, we had hoped for more investment and stimulus for business, including a return to the promised corporate tax rate cuts,” said chamber president and chief executive officer Mishka Balsom.
“The government’s approach to high electricity bills was to pay them down from general tax revenues, and while rate reductions will be welcomed, we really wanted to see the root causes of our high rates addressed. The province is also running out of time to address the provincial debt, and the business community greatly desires a sound plan that will return the province to the black.”
Despite welcoming the hospital funding, Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates said the budget isn’t all good news for Niagara.
“There are some things that are in the budget that sound like they might work out well for Niagara, and there’s some things in the budget that are still concerning for us, for sure.”
For instance, the New Democrat said, the provincial government has not changed plans that could see up to 300 schools closed across Ontario. Nor did the budget address concerns about selling off assets such as Hydro One.
Although the budget announcement included a program that would not require students to repay the provincial portion of OSAP debts until they start earning $35,000 a year, “if we don’t improve the quality of the jobs we have in the province, they may never have to pay it back,” Gates said.
“We have the lowest median income in the province, and there was no talk about a $15 minimum wage or improved worker protection around benefits,” he said.
Niagara West–Glanbrook MPP Sam Oosterhoff said his constituents have been waiting for more than 20 years for West Lincoln Memorial Hospital to be redeveloped. Apparently, west Niagara residents will have to wait longer yet.
“In the 2011 budget they promised that they were going to redevelop the West Lincoln hospital, and they cancelled that promise in the 2012 budget,” the Progressive Conservative said.
Although the province announced $9 billion over the next 10 years in funding for new hospitals, Oosterhoff said that funding is likely earmarked for hospitals in Niagara Falls and Windsor, not west Niagara.
“I was very much hoping for a commitment to redevelop the West Lincoln Memorial Hospital as they promised earlier, and we didn’t see that come forward,” he said.
Oosterhoff also remains concerned that planned school closures were not addressed in the budget.
Welland MPP Cindy Forster said the people of Ontario and Niagara “want the government to get their basic services right, and I don’t think this budget actually comes close.”
For instance, she said people need and want a $15 minimum wage, and it was not included in the budget.
And neither was the selloff of Hydro One assets, despite 85 per cent of Ontario residents who want it to remain publicly owned.
“The question was kind of being heckled from the floor today: ‘Are you going to stop the sell off of Hydro One?’” Forster said. “Premier (Kathleen) Wynne was shaking her head saying: ‘No we’re not.’”
“That is a huge issue because instead of lower rates to create long-term efficiencies, all Wynne is doing is actually mortgaging our children’s future.”