Ottawa

Unhappy with province, Belleville looks to fund health hub on its own amid drug crisis

The mayor of Belleville, Ont., says the province is dragging its heels on a request for help to build a service hub. He now wants the city to look at funding it on its own.

Local MPP says province providing $216K for region's immediate needs

An older man with thinning white hair has a sad look on his face. Behind him are the flags for Ontario and Canada and a police officer.
Belleville Mayor Neil Ellis speaks during a media conference on Feb. 12, 2024, after the city declared an addiction emergency. At a press conference Tuesday, Ellis said the province is dragging its feet approving funding and wants the city to look at funding the rest of the health hub on its own. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The mayor of Belleville, Ont., says the province is dragging its heels on granting funds to help build a hub for mental health and addictions services — so he wants the city to look at funding the project itself amid an overdose crisis.

Mayor Neil Ellis had hoped those requests would be fast-tracked, but said there's been "no support" from Ontario's government so far.

"Do we keep waiting? Wait and wait and wait?" he asked during a media conference on Tuesday.

"We can't," Ellis concluded, describing the situation as disappointing and frustrating. "We need to get proper services."

Police in the eastern Ontario city said 13 people overdosed in a matter of hours on the afternoon of Feb. 6, and described the situation as an "overdose emergency."

That number rose to 23 suspected drug poisonings two days later, prompting the city to declare an addictions emergency.

During a press conference last week, Ellis said Belleville had already invested $2 million toward turning a former banquet hall into a space to provide addiction, mental health and homelessness support, which will be called The Bridge.

He asked for Ontario's government to meet the city halfway and come up with the other $2 million needed to get the project up and running.

"We need action now," the mayor said at the time.

City not satisfied with response

Bay of Quinte Progressive Conservative MPP Todd Smith and Michael Tibollo, associate minister of mental health and addictions, met with officials in Belleville last week.

In a statement shared afterward, Smith said Ontario is providing more than $216,000 in one-time funding to meet the immediate needs of the city and surrounding area.

He said the funding will increase staffing at local support services and also increase presence of outreach teams and first responders downtown.

A black parked SUV with a large "Police" sticker on the side. In the background are several people pushing carts of belongings.
A Belleville Police cruiser parks near the Bridge Street United Church on Feb. 7, 2024, after overdoses surged in the area the day before. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The mayor said he left that meeting with the impression the MPPs weren't optimistic about the request for $2 million to get the hub up and running, saying it was described as a "tough ask."

"I'm not in any way disparaging or disrespecting the efforts of our provincial partners in their response to our calls for help in the past weeks," Ellis said Tuesday.

"But it would be dishonest to say that we were satisfied ... with the announcement made last week of $216,000."

'It's time to bring action'

A spokesperson for Health Minister Sylvia Jones said the province is focused on immediate support, pointing to the same $216,000 announced by Smith.

She said Belleville's other requests remain under review, along with submissions for a longer-term project from Canadian Mental Health Association Hastings Prince Edward (CMHA HPE), though it "will take years to be operational."

Lisa Ali, CMHA HPE's CEO, said while the service hub would help meet the community's immediate needs, the region has also long faced funding gaps for mental health and addictions support.

"Long-term planning and capacity building is the only path to sustained impact," she said.

A large, beige building with a massive mural on one wall announcing "Bay of Quinte Country" is a "great place to live." The building is rundown.
Officials in Belleville plan to turn this former banquet centre into a community hub called The Bridge, which will provide food, showers and other supports for the area's vulnerable residents. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Ellis requested funding for the hub again on Tuesday, but said he would also ask city staff to come up with options for the city to pay for it on its own.

That could mean a one per cent tax hike, a levy or using long-term debt, he said, all pending council approval.

"It's time to bring action," said the mayor. "If we have to … do it by ourselves, that's what we will do."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Taekema

Reporter

Dan Taekema is CBC’s reporter covering Kingston, Ont. and the surrounding area. He’s worked in newsrooms in Chatham, Windsor, Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa. You can reach him by emailing daniel.taekema@cbc.ca.

with files from Andrew Foote

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