Saving senior's home about services, not business

First published: May 05, 2006

One of the questions that never gets full debated is whether government is a business or public service. Since the 1980s and the rise of conservatives (neo-liberal values), politicians love to dupe citizens into believing governments at all levels are just a type of business. Governments are no longer seem interested in serving the broader public good through the provision of services to assist and protect citizens. Northumberland is no exception.
Sure, during budget deliberations in Northumberland the rhetoric hits blinding heights as those responsible play mind games with taxpayers’ dollars. First, we are given the wish list, always publicized for its shock value for the huge increases in property and other taxes.

Next, the municipal staff are sent back to the drawing board to hack and slash without any consultation with the public or interest groups invited. Next, it is a revised version, always close, but never complete. Politicians bellow and blow.

Then it is back for another round. Finally, miracles of miracles (praise the Lord and pass the sharp pencil), the final budget is set. Only then, after all this painful, hard work and sweat and effort, can the public comment.

But, by now, who would suggest any radical ideas or major changes. It is far too late in such an intimidating process.

Despite such a cynical view, it is always clear from politicians when they talk about budgets, word like efficiency and cost effective are used countless times. Rarely, do you hear someone argue for spending more for services. In fact, quite the opposite is happening.

Take for example, the county’s latest discussion to privatize the Golden Plough Lodge. Cobourg Mayor Peter Delanty is floating the idea, while emphasizing the matter is merely in the discussion phase. An anonymous email claims if major cuts are not made within six months, county council will start sending our request for proposals to contract out the service. County chief administrative Bill Pyatt is already got his axe out, reducing staff hours during current budget deliberations. It is enough to get people worried.

By floating the possibility of privatizing the Plough, Delanty is using one of his favourite tactics. Complaining the home for the aged is draining the bottom line, he pleads with the community to support his call to privatize this vital public service to some of the neediest seniors in Northumberland. While this may be simply a brainstorming session by county councillors to reduce taxes, it is far darker.

To hear the type of logic Delanty uses in this discussion, it is strikingly similar to the language he uses when talking about policing. The comparison is not far fetched. The mayor is very upset with the annual budget for police and the town is searching actively for alternatives, just as he is suggesting the county do for the Plough. In both cases, there are some serious frustrations between the union and politicians. The Cobourg Police Association has publicly squared off with the police services board and the municipal council, just the same as the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 1748 is vocal about the situation at home for the aged. This all may be coincidence, but it is disturbing all the same.

What is most revealing is the way the situation is described. Delanty and other county councillors, along with staff, talk about the “bottom line”. “It is taxpayers money we are talking about,” he says.

Clearly this debate is framed in business terminology and there is little or no talk about services to the community. Taxpayer are envisioned to be shareholders and the politicians are member of a board of directors protecting our investment (aka the taxes we pay).

Citizens need to take a step back. We pay taxes for services, which municipalities are meant to provide effectively. Yes, it should be done without wasting money. But maybe part of the discussion should be around the level of service. And, it might be nice to think that people would be willing to pay a bit more tax, if they knew the seniors living in the home for the aged were getting more care than just the minimum standards.

This is not as far fetched as one might think. Back in 1895, local citizens got together and created a 12-bed home for the aged and infirm because they believed it was needed and good for the community. This home became the original Cobourg hospital. Eventually, in 1907, seniors were moved out and a House of Refuge was created for them. Since that time, the municipalities have provided this service. While some seniors may be able to afford private home care, a publicly funded facility for those who cannot pay must be maintained with levels of service deserving of the best institutions.

May 05, 2006The current county council needs to stop treating government like a business. Certainly be fiscally responsible, but let’s not forget the major job of government is to provide essential services for those in the most need, like the home for the aged.

As for those worried about skyrocketing taxes, let’s get rid of the two-tier municipal government in Northumberland and all the duplication that comes with it. That would cover the difference nicely. But maybe it is easier to get rid of a union than a politician.

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