What's in the Ontario Budget for Windsor-Essex

Specific mentions of Windsor-Essex and Chatham-Kent were hardly noticeable in the first budget delivered by the Doug Ford government.

The $500,000 renovation project at the Wallaceburg hospital was mentioned by Finance Minister Vic Fedeli when discussing health care.

But the new mega-hospital for Windsor-Essex was not mentioned.

Still, officials at Windsor Regional Hospital say there is no need for the community to worry about the project, estimated to cost $2 billion.

President and CEO David Musyj tells AM800 News the plan is still on track.

“It (the budget) does mention that there's 60 projects of hospital infrastructure that are going to continue, which one of course is ours in Windsor-Essex so that's very positive news,” says Musyj.

Musyj adds the Ford government's injection of $1.4 billion into the health care system is good news.

Overall health spending is set to rise over three years by a modest annual average of 1.6 per cent, with Ontario's move to roll more than 20 health agencies into one expected to save $350 million a year by 2021-22. Moves billed as "workforce productivity," such as reducing overtime, are expected to save $250 million a year.

That restructuring includes consolidating the province’s 35 public health units into 10 regional agencies by 2021.

Essex County Warden Gary McNamara says news the health unit as we know it today may vanish.

“You need to do more and you need to do it more efficiently and you need to do it with less,” says McNamara. “That's basically our future in terms of moving forward.”

There is also no mention of the Highway 3 expansion project from Essex to Leamington that was promised by Doug Ford during the election campaign.

Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek hinted while in Leamington last week for the launch of the Pelee Islander that some news about Highway 3 would be coming soon.

Essex MPP Taras Natyshak is critical of the omission in the budget.

“People in my riding have been waiting for the widening of this highway for years, hearing nothing but empty promises from the Liberals,” Natyshak said. “Now, the Ford Conservatives are dragging us further backwards, with no plan to protect our residents’ safety by widening this dangerous stretch of highway.”

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Hwy. 3 westbound between Ellis Rd. and Manning Rd. was closed the evening on May 29, 2018 for emergency repairs. (Photo by Ricardo Veneza)

McNamara isn’t giving up hope that Ford will fulfill his campaign promise.

“I haven't seen anything indicating that it would be imminent in the 2019-20 budget,” says McNamara. “There are still three more years and three more budgets to move forward again.”

McNamara adds he will press for the Highway 3 project at the next AMO conference in August.

The budget did mention widening and improving safety on Highway 401 on 128 kilometres from four to six lanes from Tilbury to London.

The Build the Barrier group in Chatham-Kent has been pushing for safety improvements along that stretch of highway, known as ‘carnage alley.’

Members of the grassroots group say they are “cautiously optimistic” about the news.

“It’s reassuring to see the highway widening commitment in writing. Now it’s time we see it in reality,” says group founder Alysson Storey. “Minister Yurek lives in carnage alley and has worked with us on this issue since day one. He knows firsthand the dangers drivers face on a daily basis on this outdated stretch of highway. I have no doubt the reason why this was included in the budget is because he pushed for it and we are very thankful for that.”

Another transportation project for the region appears to be shelved.

The government has “paused capital funding for high-speed rail in the 2019 Ontario budget.”

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AM800 file photo

Instead, the government says it will look for ways to enhance service and speed times for existing railway corridors.

The previous Liberal government had committed $11 billion to connect Toronto to London with high speed rail by 2025, with a line extending to Windsor by 2031.

Natyshak along with fellow New Democrat MPP’s in Windsor-Essex Lisa Gretzky and Percy Hatfield released a joint statement, saying the region was hit especially hard by the Ford budget.

“The cruel, $1-billion cut to social services will hurt people in our community living with a disability and increase the already high number of people experiencing poverty and homelessness,” said Gretzky.

“There’s nothing in this budget to boost Windsor’s auto sector, or protect local auto workers from even more jobs being put at risk,” added Hatfield.

Unifor leaders watched the budget in Windsor on Thursday and say they are disappointed.

The budget did outline $40 million over three years for research and development in the auto sector. But Unifor Local 200 President John D'Agnolo said workers in the auto-sector didn't get the attention they deserved.

“You talk about the social services that they're going to need and they made cuts to social services," said D’Agnolo. "This budget was absolutely disappointing."

But Chatham-Kent-Leamington Progressive Conservative MPP Rick Nicholls said in a statement that the budget helps balance the books while protecting critical frontline services.

“In recent announcements, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and Ministry of Infrastructure combined invested a total of $13,564,715 new dollars to stimulate growth and modernization in Chatham-Kent, Leamington, Essex, and Windsor,” said MPP Nicholls. “That’s on top of our share of a $1 billion dollar increase to the education budget, $1.75 billion to build 15,000 new long term care beds and modernize 15,000 existing beds, plus $165 million going to road projects in Southwestern Ontario from the Ministry of Transportation.”

Education spending is set to rise by 1.2 per cent, but that growth is largely due to higher student enrolment, instead of new programs. Ontario recently announced a host of education changes, including larger high school class sizes, which sparked widespread anger.

The post-secondary sector will see funding cuts, with spending dropping one per cent on average for the next three years, largely due to changes to student financial assistance.

Universities and colleges will also see more conditions on their money, with up to 60 per cent of post-secondary funding tied to institutional performance over the next five years. The government could not specify what criteria will be used to evaluate performance, saying it will work with institutions to develop them.

The 2019 Ontario budget also includes a child-care tax credit, providing up to $6,000 per child under seven and up to $3,750 per child between seven and 16, on a sliding scale for families earning less than $150,000 annually.

Free dental care will also be provided for low-income seniors.

The government is also loosening rules around alcohol, allowing municipalities to legalize drinking in parks, letting licensed establishments start serving alcohol at 9 a.m., permitting happy hour advertising, and legalizing tailgate parties. The government also intends to put beer and wine in corner stores.

The budget also reveals a new Ontario trillium logo -- virtually identical to a previous iteration -- as well as a largely blue licence plate redesign and an accompanying new slogan, "A place to grow." The government spent $500,000 on a consultation on branding, but has a new contract for licence plate production that saves $4 million.