Saturday, September 05, 2009

Station 20 West: Wall gov’t refusing to disclose full contents of key letter to Saskatoon Regional Health Authority pulling $8M in provincial funding

When Finance Minister Rod Gantefoer delivered the 2008-09 provincial budget on March 19, 2008, there was no hint whatsoever that the Saskatchewan Party government was about to rob Station 20 West of $8-million in funding.

On March 20, 2008, Saskatchewan Health faxed Station 20 West organizers a letter advising them that the government “will not be proceeding further” with the project. No reasons were given for the decision.

It wasn’t until March 27, 2008, that the story became public when The StarPhoenix and CBC News reported what happened.

Civic affairs columnist Gerry Klein said the “decision was buried in budget documents and not announced openly or addressed directly until the finance minister spoke to a reporter during a StarPhoenix editorial board meeting.” [Time to rethink poor moves (StarPhoenix, April 3, 2008)]

Provincial health officials define Station 20 West Community Enterprise Centre as an urban renewal project aimed at strengthening the economic and social well being of Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods of Pleasant Hill, Westmount, King George, Riversdale and Caswell Hill, through a community-based economic development approach.

The initiative combines social, health, housing, library, community and educational services with a neighbourhood grocery store, and a public gathering place.

On February 23, 2007, the previous NDP government announced $8-million for the Station 20 West project to improve health and community services for Saskatoon inner city residents. The source of the funding was the unspent budget in the 2006-07 fiscal year. The money was direct deposited to the health authority on April 3, 2007.

For Premier Brad Wall the reason for slashing the funding was strictly ideological.

According to the CBC the premier said support for the project was cancelled because it would compete with other businesses.

“We don’t think that the government of Saskatchewan should be opening up, basically, a mall development where we’d be competing with grocery stores and competing with others who are renting to community clinics in the area,” Wall said.

Provincial Health Minister Don McMorris said the government has other spending priorities. [Province pulls $8M from inner city Saskatoon project (CBC News, March 27, 2008)]

The StarPhoenix lambasted the government saying the reasons for cutting the grant “look more like a raft of juvenile excuses rather than part of a coherent plan to run the province.”

The newspaper called Wall’s excuse “weak” and the decision “ill-considered.”

“[T]o cancel the entire project rather than deal directly with the situation is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” [Government’s actions signal trouble ahead (StarPhoenix, Mar. 29, 2008)]

In the article Station 20 cash to pay down health deficit (StarPhoenix, March 29, 2008) Jean Morrison, vice-president of performance excellence and chief nursing officer for the Saskatoon Health Region, said the provincial government had given the health region the $8 million to hold in trust for Station 20 West while the organizations involved worked on more detailed plans.

The region has no power to decide how that $8 million will be spent, Morrison said.

“We can’t spend it until they can tell us how we can spend it,” she said of the Ministry of Health.

Louise Greenberg, associate deputy minister of health, said about $6 million of that money will be spent on urgent capital needs in the health region, including $1.1 million for new hospital air conditioners, $1.4 million to replace the fire alarm system at St. Paul's Hospital, $1.6 million to replace an aging CT scanner at City Hospital, and money to upgrade ambulance equipment and to buy transportation equipment to accommodate morbidly obese patients.

More than $2 million will go toward paying off the $8.7-million shortfall the Saskatoon Health Region has accumulated in the first 10 months of its 2007-08 operating year, Greenberg said.

There’s more to story but the government is denying access to those details.

In response to a freedom of information request made on August 4, 2009, Saskatchewan Health is refusing to release the full contents of a March 28, 2008, letter sent by Max Hendricks, the assistant deputy minister of health, to Saskatoon Health Region CEO Maura Davies informing her that funding for Station 20 West was being pulled.

“In February of 2007, Government announced $8.0M for a project in Saskatoon, called the Station 20 West Community Enterprise Centre. This letter is to advise you that Government will not be proceeding with this initiative,” Hendricks states in the opening paragraph of the partially disclosed letter.

The next section of the letter, however, as well as most of the five-page attachment, was redacted. The only other part of Hendricks’s letter that was disclosed is the two closing sentences.

“The Ministry is pleased to assist your Region in addressing the infrastructure issues outlined, and we look forward to working with you in concluding the Station 20 West Project,” he said.

“If you are in agreement with the enclosed amendment as written, please sign both copies and return one to the Primary Health Services Branch… by April 18, 2008.”

Despite the missing information it remains clear that what the Wall government did was reach back in time to change an earlier agreement by deleting the services and funding schedules agreed to by the health region and the NDP government and replacing them with its own. The health region still got to keep the $8-million. They were just forced to spend it on something other than Station 20 West.

The timeline of events is troubling. The Wall government made the decision to pull the funds, then informed Station 20 West organizers, and finally confirmed it publicly all before actually signing the amendment agreement.

The original agreement, signed by Davies and Donna Magnusson, the executive director of primary health services with Saskatchewan Health, on March 28, 2007, contains at least two clauses worth noting:

Section 2.2: “The Department may at any time request a change to the scope of services to be provided pursuant to Schedule A. A change of services shall become effective upon the signed written consent of the RHA, which shall be appended to this Agreement.”

Section 12.8: “This Agreement, including the Schedules, may be amended by the written, mutual consent of the parties.”

Anyone can request anything. According to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary all a request is a polite way of asking for something. Whether or not it’s granted is another matter entirely. There is nothing in the original agreement that states the health authority was compelled to grant any and all requests made by the health ministry (the “Department”). In fact, before any change could take place the regional health authority had to give its written consent. It would seem that the health authority could have said no. Hendricks seemed to acknowledge this in his letter to Davies when he asked her to sign the attached document “if” she was “in agreement” with it. The disturbing thing is in the opening paragraph of his letter Hendricks basically made it impossible for Davies to refuse telling her in no uncertain terms that the government “will not be proceeding” with the Station 20 West project.

The health region was essentially bullied into accepting the government’s decision. There’s little doubt that someone would’ve lost their job had they tried to say no.

Page 1 of original agreement

Page 2 of original agreement

Page 6 of original agreement

Page 7 of original agreement

Schedule A of original agreement

Schedule B of original agreement


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