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Social services benefits could be slashed

Region grapples with $6-million shortfall after provincial government announces plan to cap spending

By Ryan Flanagan
Kitchener Post staff

Regional councillors learned more last week about the effects potential cuts in social service spending could have on those who use it.

The region is staring down a $6-million shortfall after the provincial government announced its plan to cap the amount it spends on discretionary benefits — things like dental and vision care, food hampers, interpreter services and funerals for people receiving Ontario Works and ODSP benefits.

With the province only funding the program for up to $10 per person, councillors have to grapple with which services they want to retain. Keeping the full suite of benefits currently offered would mean a $3.5-million increase to property taxes.

Waterloo Coun. Jane Mitchell, who sits on the region’s employment and income support committee, said that committee had discussed the situation and hoped councillors would realize the importance of the benefits.

“The word discretionary was discussed as a word that really doesn’t reflect what these particular programs do,” she said.

Region staff recently surveyed front-line staff, community organizations that help with similar services and social assistance recipients about the potential changes. More than 650 responses were received.

“A consistent theme was, and you will not be surprised, ‘Do not cut anything. Please leave it alone,’” said David Dirks, the region’s director of employment and income support.

Everyone involved was asked to rank the benefits from most important to least, and while the lists didn’t match up exactly, all three sectors pointed to the same five programs as being the most important — dental coverage, rent support, vision care, food hampers and aid for utility connection fees.

“This region’s always had a long history of going the extra mile with social services, and trying to stretch every dollar as much as possible,” thanks in part to the province’s eagerness for cost-sharing deals,  said regional chair Ken Seiling.

“Little did we know that the province would then turn around and use that against us.”

Options presented to councillors included maintaining the status quo, cutting programs and reducing thresholds to various levels, and trimming back completely to fit within the provincial cap.

Regardless of which option is chosen, councillors were asked to provide some funding to allow for a smooth transition.

“We believe that 2013, whatever we do, will be a transitional year. By 2014 we should have a clearer sense of what the program would be like in terms of what supports we would be offering to people going forward,” Dirks said.

Local social service agencies are expected to push hard for the region to maintain most or all of the benefits, as their budget pressures would make it difficult for them to pick up the slack.

“They’re facing the same challenges we are,” said Cambridge Coun. Claudette Millar.

Waterloo Coun. Sean Strickland said he’d like to see most of the benefits retained, but questioned if there might be other ways of looking at the issue.

“We have over $1 million for transit expansion across some lines. We have other programs in the region that require some dollars as well. So it really comes down to what our priorities are,” he said.

“Is there an opportunity for us here to align some of the programs that we’re currently delivering? On the dental side of things, can we look at our program through public health?”

Councillors will make a final decision as part of their budget deliberations, with the next round of budget talks slated for Nov. 21.

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