There’s no need to hit the panic button just yet because the Mills Memorial Hospital replacement project isn’t visible in this year’s provincial budget, said Terrace city councillor Sean Bujtas at a Terrace and District Chamber of Commerce luncheon March 8.
The business plan to define the size and cost of the project needs approval by the Treasury Board, the committee of the provincial cabinet which sets out spending plans, but it isn’t finished, said Bujtas who is also one of the city’s representatives on the Kitimat-Stikine regional district and on the North West Regional Hospital Board.
His comments arose during an exchange with BC Liberal Skeena MLA Ellis Ross who, as the luncheon guest speaker, said he went through his copy of the budget the day it was presented only to find that “Mills Memorial is not in the budget.”
While Ross acknowledged there have been announcements that a new Mills will be built, “that doesn’t matter. What matters is [if] it’s in the budget.”
Further, Ross continued, the project isn’t within the three-year projection of major capital projects.
And he said even if the project is approved by the provincial Treasury Board, it is the government through the cabinet that makes the final decision on projects.
Ross said there have been cases of projects being approved by the Treasury Board but which were then cancelled by provincial governments.
“So our job is to keep the pressure up. We’ve got to keep it in cabinet’s mind,” Ross added.
“So my job is to make sure government knows. I’m fully aware of the politics, I’m fully aware of the process. I just want to see that when I flip open the budget, that Mills Memorial is there as a line item.”
During a question and answer period, Bujtas said the Mills project is about three to four years within a 10-year time frame from planning to opening and that when local officials met with health minister Adrian Dix last fall, he told them the project was ahead of similar ones in the province.
And since the business plan isn’t finished, “how can it be in the budget if they don’t know exactly how much it’s going to cost,” Bujtas said.
“I’m just not sure I’m as worried as you are about it,” he continued while agreeing with Ross that pressure on the province needs to be kept up.
In response, Ross said he just wanted a signal of when the project is going to get into the budget.
Assurances are one thing but a line item in a budget is another, Ross added.
“Let’s not start celebrating, we got to see it in the budget,” he said.
Bujtas said there was no expectation that the business plan was going to be complete by the end of this year in that it was submitted last fall and could take 12 to 18 months for completion.
“We don’t need to hit the panic switch right now, that’s all I’m getting at. We’re not even close to being at that stage of the game,” he said.
“The hospital is moving along on target.”
Ross responded by telling Bujtas he didn’t want local officials to go to battle with the province over the hospital timing.
“Let me do that. That’s my job. I’m opposition. I got to criticize them.”
A statement from the North West Regional Hospital District issued March 7 said its board “is not concerned that the Mills Memorial Hospital replacement is not itemized at this time” and that the business plan is on schedule and being finalized.
A timeline prepared by the hospital district shows the first planning for a new Mills began in 2012, advancing steadily since then to the business plan stage. Its forecasting project tendering and groundbreaking next year with completion in 2023-2024.
First announced in spring 2017 by the then-B.C. Liberal government and announced again last February by the current NDP government, a new Mills will replace the current 60-year-old structure, increasing the bed count to more than 40 and bringing in advanced trauma treatment services.
For its part, through property taxes, the hospital district will pay 30 per cent of the cost and no more than $113.7 million through a deal it negotiated with the province.
So far the Northern Health Authority has stated it has spent $3.5 million on the Mills Memorial planning phase, a cost that’s being completely covered by the regional hospital district. The hospital district has forwarded $2 million of that amount to date.
The hospital district will then deduct the $3.5 million planning cost from its $113.7 million contribution.