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Durham municipalities wrestling over sought-after new hospital

One mayor has the hospital network's preferred choice of site. The other’s got the PCs’ ear
Peter Bethlenfalvy, Ontario's Minister of Finance, left, arrives with Premier Doug Ford to deliver the provincial government's 2022 budget at the Queens Park Legislature, in Toronto, on Thursday, April 28, 2022.

Whether it makes it into Ontario's 2023 budget or not, a relatively small chunk of funding affecting a sought-after hospital in the finance minister's region could make waves locally.

A pair of local mayors are after the same prize: a new hospital in their community.

One mayor has the hospital network's preferred choice of site but is on the outs with the Progressive Conservative government. The other’s got the PCs’ ear and happens to be located within the riding of the finance minister — Peter Bethlenfalvy, the MPP for Pickering—Uxbridge.

Durham is the easternmost region of the Greater Toronto Area, encompassing eight municipalities: Uxbridge, Pickering, Ajax, Brock, Scugog, Whitby, Oshawa, and Clarington. Mayors, regional chairs and councillors from its eight municipalities sit on its regional council.

The region is expected to nearly double its population of 700,000 by 2051 and it's going to need more health-care capacity.

Lakeridge Health, the region’s health system and hospital network, says it needs to add almost 1,000 in-patient beds over the next 25 years and it established a panel of former hospital, health-care and development executives from outside the Durham Region that spent much of 2021 determining an appropriate site.

In early January 2022, Lakeridge Health announced that a site submitted by Whitby’s municipality had been chosen by its board of trustees, following the advice of the independent expert panel.

The site is near Whitby’s western boundary, bordering Pickering, and close also to Ajax. It’s next to where Highway 407 meets 412, just north of where the latter also intersects with Highway 7, “in the heart of the region, well-connected thanks to proximity to major roads and several highways,” as a press release from Whitby’s mayor’s office describes it.

The Whitby site is also on land currently owned by Ontario’s Transportation Ministry. The ministry has agreed to sell 50 acres of the land at market value to the Town of Whitby if the provincial government agrees to fund a new hospital there, according to the town.

However, since Lakeridge Health picked Whitby as its preferred site — over entries from Pickering and Oshawa — more than a year ago, the planning for a hospital effectively stalled, and the mayor of Whitby told The Trillium she's getting concerned.

Provincial governments, backed by significant funding from the federal government, are responsible for administering and delivering most health-care services, and thus cover most costs for major capital projects like hospitals. For the proposed hospital on Whitby’s site “the expected funding model” would see Ontario’s government funding 90 per cent of construction costs and 100 per cent of planning costs, the town’s website says.

Whitby’s mayor, Elizabeth Roy, and local councillors have been lobbying the Ford government to give a $3 million planning grant to Lakeridge Health in its upcoming budget.

Roy hasn’t shied from doing this publicly over the last few weeks. She says that's because she'd been unsuccessful in trying to secure a meeting with Bethlenfalvy and Lorne Coe, Whitby’s PC MPP, on the issue. (Coe and Roy have a meeting next week, but on a different topic, town staff said.)

While reporting this story, The Trillium asked Coe’s staff by email and over the phone for an interview. His staff did not respond.

“It’s very concerning we’re not hearing more positive feedback,” Roy said in an interview in late February.

After making the first request for an interview with Coe, The Trillium was sent a statement from Health Minister Sylvia Jones’ office.

“We are aware the Lakeridge Health Board of Trustees has approved land to be protected for a future site of a Whitby hospital and has submitted their proposal to the Ministry of Health,” the health minister’s spokesperson said at the end of a five-paragraph statement that was mostly about the government’s health-care policies and funding, including those in Durham that aren’t a new hospital.

Meanwhile, Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe told The Trillium he still thinks of the proposed hospital’s whereabouts as unsettled and he is continuing to push for Pickering’s site.

“We’re ready to take up the reins if the (provincial) government is still willing to chat,” Ashe said in an interview last week. Ashe is a member of Durham’s regional council, which recognized Whitby’s site as its preferred location for a hospital in its growth plan released last month.

Ashe said he thinks the fact that the Ministry of Transportation still owns Whitby’s site is an unsolved issue.

Pickering’s site is a few kilometres west of Whitby’s, also between Highways 407 and 7. Unlike Whitby’s site, it lacks an immediately nearby north-south highway. A developer keen on building in the area has offered Pickering the amount of land needed for a hospital there, should planning on its site advance.

Pickering’s site is also within Bethlenfalvy’s riding of Pickering—Uxbridge, and Whitby’s isn’t. Ashe, a PC candidate back in 2007, said he and Bethlenfalvy “have an excellent working relationship.”

“I’ve spoken to him about Pickering’s desire to have a facility, and he’s aware of that, and I’ve advocated for that,” Ashe said.

The mayors of Whitby and Pickering both plan to continue advocating for their site if the March 23 budget doesn’t settle it one way or the other, or if it’s absent altogether. Governments are supposed to keep a lid on specific budget commitments before tabling the fiscal plan and neither Ashe nor Roy said they knew if a planning grant will be in it. 

Bethlenfalvy’s constituency office responded to questions The Trillium emailed to his staff with a general statement that didn’t address the questions.

Meanwhile, the mayors are waiting.

“I guess there’s just some legitimate disagreement among the two mayors of where the best spot might be," Ashe said. "I don’t envision the riding (Bethlenfalvy) represents would impact his decision-making."

“If there’s anything that’s over and above — or that there’s political pushback — because of relationships, that’s very unfortunate," said Roy.

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