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What happens when everyone is in need? Tough budget decisions loom

This week's Market Squared prepares you for the rough ride this November as council starts the 2024-2027 multiyear budget
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At Wednesday’s Social Services Committee meeting at Wellington County, staff members from the Sanguen Health Centre’s community health van attended to ask for help. We’re in danger of losing this valuable resource at a time when their services are so critical because the federal funding they get is set to expire at the end of March.

The health van provides primary care, harm reduction, mental health care, infectious disease testing and treatment and the support of people who have lived experience with drug use and homelessness. In the last quarter they saw over 2,200 unique patients, 120 of whom visited the van for the first time. They gave out 367 naloxone kits, gave nearly 200 people immediate medical treatment and got over 100 people into support from other services.

There should be a dozen health vans set up at different times and locations to help people where they are, but instead there’s just the one serving Guelph and Wellington County, and perhaps not for very much longer.

As of April 1, the community health van and its team will not longer receive the over $200,000 per year they presently get from Health Canada, which provide 80 per cent of the core funding for the van. The rest is made up by a grant from TD and another grant from the City of Guelph, but the ground is falling out from underneath Sanguen as they struggle to find a new source of funding.

This would be a big story if it wasn’t already a story that’s repeating itself almost daily across the non-profit sector. This week, Royal City Mission announced that they had raised enough money to cover the increased costs of the increased need for their regularly scheduled programming, but only after a full court press in this publication among others.

At a time when even the United Way – as venerable a name in fundraising as any – is having difficulty reaching its fundraising goals, all eyes will turn to the one source of funding everyone considers reliable: city hall.

There’s a belief in the community, and it’s not exactly unwarranted, that if you can make a compelling case to city council, your case will be heard, and you might at least get some portion of your ask met. You can’t always get what you want, as a famous band once sang, but if you try sometimes, you can get what you need.

But what happens when everyone’s in need?

This will be a question that our city council will be forced to answer when the budget process begins on Nov. 3, and it’s hard to imagine a more difficult budget season in recent memory, even the one in 2015 when a majority of council initially rejected the budget until the tax levy could be shaved down further.

Be under no delusions, the question with this year budget will not be 'How low can we go?' it will be 'How high before we say enough?' Sure, you can curse the tax-and-spend fools that no one voted for, especially you, but the fact of the matter is that our pending budget calamity this year is a Frankenstein’s monster, sewn from the parts of many different causes and conditions.

There are the gross changes made by the provincial government that has cut a $227 million hole in the amount of development charges and fees that the city can collect over the next 10 years. And it’s not like Guelph can stop building either because the Ontario government is also insisting that we build 18,000 homes in the next decade, so that infrastructure must get paid for.

There’s the compounding effect of putting off projects we’ve needed for decades but are now only starting to realize. A new main library and south end rec centre needed to be built years ago, our transit system still languishes in a hub and spoke model established in the 80s and our downtown is full of century-old clay pipes as thousands of people are about to move into the oldest part of town.

There’s the affordability crisis, which has had a profound impact on aid agencies that are forced to respond to greater need at a time when even the well-off have less to give. It doesn’t help that Guelph doesn’t handle its own social services, and what’s available within city limits is a patchwork of different organizations who all answer to different boards and funders and masters.

This last one speaks to the sloppy mess of governance and how we’re governed. At a workshop meeting about the budget this week, there was a rousing call that we need a new deal for cities. We’ve needed it for years. I’ve called for a new deal myself and the fact that for the last few years we’ve had federal, provincial and municipal elections all within 18 months of each other and never talked about that is appalling.

While downloading more and more on municipalities, our federal and provincial governments have freely used their bottomless credit cards, and nothing ever really seems to get better. Perhaps it’s the times, or perhaps it’s the way they fund things.

You see, the expanded services from Sanguen’s community health van are funded by something called the Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP). It’s a federal grant for pilot programs in the areas of harm reduction and addictions treatment, and then after the programs are successfully launched and are having a profound impact on their communities, it’s up to them to find permanent funding.

Health Canada still collects applications for funding for new pilot projects, which will, at some point, hit the same wall as Sanguen; a success story that ends too soon because nothing is permanent in this crazy world and no one is thinking long term. The feds will say that local solutions should come first, but that’s only after we force non-profits to beg for scraps from the fiscal table.

Sanguen is not the first local aid agency looking to city hall to throw them a rope, and they won’t be the last. I’m sure city council will do their best, but don’t fool yourself, getting to the end of the 2024-27 multiyear budget process is going to be a rough ride.


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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