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Winnipeg city hall is moving to end its three-decade subsidization of ambulance services, but warns taxpayers shouldn't expect any extra relief.
Mayor Brian Bowman and members of the executive policy committee voted unanimously Wednesday to tell the provincial government it will have to cover the entire cost of ambulance services provided by the city.
"Health services are a provincial government responsibility. Delivering a provincial service should not come at the expense of Winnipeg property taxpayers," Bowman told the committee, explaining the rationale for the move.
Bowman conceded the potential savings — about $14 million annually — would not result in a reduction in property taxes. Instead, the freed-up money will be spent on other civic initiatives, such as roads, community centres and other aging infrastructure.
"The dollars will be ultimately used and put to better use for areas that we are, in fact, responsible — and that’s what council will ultimately do," the mayor told reporters.
The move marks a shift in the city’s position on ambulance services, following the Pallister government's announcement in 2017 it was freezing ambulance funding at 2016 levels.
The City of Winnipeg’s initial reaction was to threaten to give ambulance services back to the province. Support for that stance cooled after an April 2018 report from Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane, who said the process would take about two years, and would likely mean the end of the province’s $10-million subsidy of the WFPS.
In addition, Lane reported the city would incur one-time costs to deal with the transition (disposing of medical equipment and ambulance vehicles, sorting out station rental agreements). He said the city would also have to hire outside human resources and legal experts to deal with 350 ambulance paramedic staff.
According to the city's 2018 budget, the cost of ambulance services is $68.4 million, but there’s a shortfall between what’s generated from ambulance fees charged to patients ($20.9 million) and the amount the city receives in provincial funding ($36.2 million) — which is then put on Winnipeg property taxpayers.
The city’s share is also bumped up by about $3 million annually, as a result of non-payment of ambulance bills, for a combined total subsidy of about $14.3 million.
Meanwhile, Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen said he's been pleased with negotiations on outstanding ambulance costs, and he's committed to considering the latest proposal.
"We’re willing to stay at the table and negotiate with the city," Friesen told reporters Wednesday, adding long-term block funding for ambulance services could benefit both sides.
"We’re not going to solve these things overnight, if the mayor is saying he wants a five-, 10- or 20-year arrangement," the minister said. "But we are confident that we can meet both the goals of providing a very good service for Winnipeggers and making sure that we can do so on a sustainable basis."
In a statement released by his office prior to the EPC meeting, Bowman said taxpayers are already facing increases on other fronts, and they shouldn’t be expected to pay for ambulance costs.
"Subsidizing the cost of delivering a provincial health service through property taxes poses too significant of a threat to prosperity for Winnipeg residents, who are already facing increases in automobile insurance rates, as well as multiple increases in electricity rates," Bowman said.
City hall is negotiating a new service delivery agreement with government agency Shared Health, which took over responsibility of ambulances from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority earlier this year.
Bowman said Wednesday's push clearly spells out to the city’s negotiating team, and to the province, what is expected when an agreement is reached.
"What today’s motion does is directs the public service to negotiate with the province the ongoing provision of services, as we’ve been doing for many, many years, but on a full cost-recovery basis," the mayor said, adding the city’s 2019 operating budget is being prepared with full-cost recovery assumption for ambulance services.
– with files from Larry Kusch
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.
Updated on Wednesday, December 5, 2018 at 6:17 PM CST: Adds photo