'Health care is going to cost more than roads'; Muskoka council votes to take on Fairvern at $50M

Fairvern residents attend the Muskoka district council meeting.

Councillors discuss the Fairvern resolution at a Feb. 18 health committee meeting.

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Agatha Farmer

On Feb. 18 in a dramatic emotion filled unanimous vote Muskoka councillors agreed to take on the operation and re-development of Huntsville's Fairvern long term care facility to the price tag of just over $50 million.

The home currently operates a 76 - bed facility, the initial redevelopment plans expanded the home to 96 beds in a new building on donated land next to Huntsville's hospital.

District council had already committed $10.5 million to the project. Without the re-development the homes operating license would have expired in 2025.

In a twist of events, however, in late 2019 and a few months prior to the provincial deadline of March. 31 to apply for the additional beds Fairvern's board of directors asked district council to take the lead on the re-development.

“Our goal is to see a new home built,” said Dana Murdy, board chair, “We have the passion — we don’t have the funding.”

In a rush to save the home and retain beds in Muskoka council instructed district staff to procure the services of consultants to crunch the numbers and pitch options. The report offered three home size options with 96, 128 or 160 beds; unfortunately an annual deficit was forecasted for all scenarios and non-for-profit homes cannot operate in a deficit. The final recommendation was for Muskoka to apply for a 160- bed facility operated by the district.

Stats say that there were 1,055 seniors on waitlists across Muskoka for a total of 510 beds. Muskoka’s waitlist is up to 10 times longer than the provincial average due to its senior demographic.

The district already operates the Pines long term care home in Bracebridge and indicated that bringing on Fairvern would allow for "synergy" of the two homes. Staff outlined the following points in its argument to take governance of the home.

Long Term Sustainability

Increased capacity to contribute to health system improvements in Muskoka Aligned policies and standard operational practices Sharing of on-call staff Financial efficiencies Shared leadership and back-office supports

The cost of the project is $50,664,600. Below are district of Muskoka financial graphs and forecasts illustrating Fairvern's impact on the tax levy. Due to the fact that the estimates for the project are being presented in today's dollars the Operating Net Levy Range swings between $55,800 to $320,800 / 0.07 percent to 0.41 percent on levy. While there is a provincial construction grant of $27,418,400, those funds are not distributed all at once but rather on an annual basis.

Due to a compressed timeframe for the application there are risks associated which according to district staff will need to be managed "carefully." Design work for example will have to commence without ministry approval. Construction needs to be completed by 2023 to meet the ministry's application criteria or costs would likely escalate.

Muskoka Lakes councillor Ruth Nishikawa struggled with her decision.

"Muskoka Lakes has to pay such a large percentage of this and we don't even have money left to fix our roads and bridges right now and I don't know when this stops; basically coming to Muskoka Lakes for a major portion of everything," Nishikawa said.

She pointed to the numbers and noted that people who are using the home are not township constituents. She believes the long term home should be there, however, not "on the back of Muskoka Lakes." The total contribution from Muskoka Lakes will be 37 percent, that is a whopping $8 million investment in the Huntsville project on behalf of the township.

Huntsville Coun. Tim Withey responded to Nishikawa and said that "Fairvern doesn't check addresses ... it would be devastating to the overall area if those licences leave the area, which they will."

Lake of Bays Mayor Terry Glover asked if there was another way to raise the funds for the project. Staff said that due to the fact that this home is a general service it would need to be applied on the general levy, however, contributions can be made to the financing of the construction which would reduce the cost on the levy. Staff is concerned, however, that such an option might set a precedent for construction of other district assets but fundraising efforts through the community are still encouraged for the home.

In the initial discussion at the district health committee meeting a few hours prior the final vote Muskoka Lakes Mayor Phil Harding compared the funding of the home to that of the government "bailing out General Motors or Chrysler." The mayor wanted to further lobby the province for a different funding formula and wasn't convinced that if this application process passes that the beds will disappear from Muskoka.

"I have an issue that we are being asked for a benefit and yet 27 per cent are outside of the district of Muskoka ... we need to help but it becomes very egregious when you look at the financial commitment," he said. During the morning meeting Harding was not willing to support the resolution if it was going on the general levy while brining up the fact that Muskoka also has a $70 million hospital bill on the horizon.

"Last I heard we're not really in the healthcare business but apparently we are, health care is going to cost more than roads."

At that same meeting a couple other district councillors agreed with Harding's viewpoint and understood Nishikawa's reluctance to support the resolution. However, that support and sentiment seemed to evaporate during the general council meeting prior to the vote while they faced an army of seniors from Fairvern specifically brought in for the vote and strategically placed in the middle of the council chamber. Any remarks of GM bailouts were muted and replaced with political favour as councillors came face to face with 60 percent of their voting demographic.

Mayor Terry Glover following his impassioned cross roads speech about "self- interest voting" requested a recorded vote in case any mere mortal councillors dared to vote no in front of a chamber full of supporters and current Fairvern residents.

Harding still proposed an amendment to the resolution but this time instead of GM bailout metaphors he addressed the Fairvern crowd with memories of his mother who also attended a long term home.

"We invest often times in youth but we need to invest in and respect those seniors and the jobs that go forward ... we need to push back on the province, the system is broken," he said.

Following an entire day of political football the resolution passed with amendments to investigate other funding options as oppose to a general levy increase and to lobby the province over funding deficiencies.

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