The provincial government needs to reduce the impacts of a new Mills Memorial Hospital on regional taxpayers, says Skeena BC Liberal MLA Ellis Ross.
In the current formula, the province pays 60 per cent but regional taxpayers pay 40 through property taxes assessed by the North West Regional Hospital District. But that will place a too-heavy burden on regional taxpayers, he said this week.
At a projected cost in the neighbourhood of $400 million, the new Mills will be the biggest direct provincial government expenditure in the region’s history.
But the resulting price hit on regional taxpayers based on the current formula will add hundreds of dollars a year to the bills of local property taxpayers, the hospital district has warned for several years now.
The hospital district covers the area from Haida Gwaii to Houston and helps pay for new equipment and construction through property taxation.
Ross said regional taxpayers have only to look at last week’s announcement that the province will pay for the entire $1.4 billion cost of replacing the Pattullo Bridge on the Lower Mainland to realize there’s something wrong.
“I don’t think that’s fair. There’s a real divide between the urban and the rural,” he said.
“The [Pattullo] bridge will serve a region and that’s how the hospital should be viewed. It serves people from Haida Gwaii, the Nass, Kitimat. It’s a regional service.”
Health minister Adrian Dix, in his visit here Feb. 9 to announce the NDP government was moving forward with construction, did indicate there will be some relief.
“There’s a local contribution, so you as taxpayers are underwriters of this project as well. And that’s an important thing to acknowledge and we worked out those details here in advance. So all the questions are answered and all we have to do is proceed and I think that’s really exciting,” he said to a packed Mills Memorial Hospital lobby.
“We’ve assured, I think, some relief for taxpayers in the region from the normal cost of building a hospital and I think that’s a positive thing and we’re doing it together.”
Dix’s announcement was the second time the province said construction will proceed. The first time was in February 2017 when Mike de Jong, then the BC Liberal finance minister, after sustained public pressure, came to Terrace to speak to a Terrace and District Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Ross said he will be probing the budget estimates of the health ministry for the new fiscal year which begins April 1 to determine details of how the new Mills will be financed.
“I’m still not convinced it will actually go ahead,” he said of the project.
Regional hospital district officials have been arguing for years now that northwestern B.C. property owners can’t absorb 40 per cent of the cost of a new Mills, saying instead that 20 per cent is a more realistic figure. Even paying for 20 per cent of a new Mills would mean a substantial tax increase, hospital district information indicates.
As it is, property owners within the regional hospital district have already seen their taxes jump substantially thanks to paying for 40 per cent of the $50 million just-opened hospital on Haida Gwaii.
But there are examples where the province can, if it wishes, pay for more than its standard 60 per cent share of hospital construction.
That’s based on circumstances when health care facilities are built in places where there isn’t the kind of population needed to absorb 40 per cent of the construction cost, indicates information provided by the provincial health ministry in 2017.
This is what happened within the Stuart-Nechako Regional Hospital District when the Lakes District Hospital and Health Centre in Burns Lake was built.
“The Stuart-Nechako hospital district made a case to government that its tax base could not realistically support 40 per cent of the cost of that particular project,” said the health ministry in a provided statement.
The province then paid for 80 per cent of the cost for that $55 million health care facility which opened in early 2015.
To date the Northern Health Authority, which operates Mills Memorial Hospital, has spent close to $1 million developing a concept plan for the new hospital which outlines in broad terms its size and what services it will offer.
An original concept plan was sent to the provincial health ministry in 2014 but became stalled until early 2017 when de Jong made his announcement.
The authority then spent approximately $60,000 updating the concept plan and sent that to the health ministry last October.
It is this updated concept plan that has now been approved by the province, setting the stage for the next step, a business plan which will nail down the size of the new hospital and the level of services it will provide.
The new Mills will be roughly twice the size of the current facility which is 11,600 square metres and it will be built at the same location.