Diving into the proposed changes to social services in the 2021 municipal budget

For our third episode of the Budget Week podcast, Peterborough Currents co-publishers Ayesha Barmania and Will Pearson dive into the proposed changes to the budget for the City’s Social Services Division.

Read an article write-up of the changes to the division by clicking here.

Episode transcript

0:01 Ayesha

Hello, you’re listening to Peterborough Currents. I’m Ayesha Barmania. 

This is episode three of the Budget Week podcast, and today we’re going to dive into what’s been proposed for the 2021 Social Services Division budget.

And to tell us about it, I’m bringing in my colleague and co-publisher, Will Pearson. Hi Will.

0:20 Will


0:21 Ayesha

So Will, can you just walk me through — why are we taking a look at the Social Services Division in particular? Like, why does this interest you?

0:28 Will Pearson

There’s a few reasons. I think that followers of Peterborough Currents know that both you and I have a particular interest in tracing how government decisions impact people who have the least resources and have the least opportunity. And I think that the social services division does that in particular. I think that people who live on a low income have perhaps the most to gain from decisions that get made during budget week, and also the most to lose. So I think it’s important to keep an eye on it for that reason. It’s also just a very big division within the City. With projected expenditures of $85 million next year, that’s the biggest division that is in the city. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the city it’s the biggest sort of drain on the city’s own finances, because a lot of the money for social services does come from the province. But still, it’s certainly by far the biggest division. And, you know, when the city did its budget consultations this year, they did a survey and asked folks what their top priorities were, and social services was the number two priority after housing. So citizens care about this as well.

1:29 Ayesha

Yeah, absolutely. You talk a bit about how big it is. What falls within the scope of social services?

1:37 Will Pearson

Yeah, there’s three main sort of sub-programs. The first one is social assistance, so administering Ontario Works. Children’s services. And then housing and homelessness is also within the Social Services Division.

1:51 Ayesha 

So when you’re looking at the, when you’re looking at the division’s budget, what are you seeing changing this year? What are the most important things that stand out?

2:00 Will Pearson

There’s a few. So this is coming from my own read on the budget. But also I called Ellen Armstrong, who’s the division manager of social services to get her take on it as well. And she highlighted a couple different things. The first one is revenue reductions from the province. So there’s a couple key areas where the province is reducing funding, and that’s putting pressure on the budget in this division this year. Continued pressure on the homelessness system, there’s a lot of need for shelter in Peterborough. And I think that the people that are accessing shelter are showing more complex needs, especially during the pandemic, and that’s driving expenses up. And then yeah, and as a result of that, there’s a couple of places where cuts are being proposed by city staff in the draft budget this year, which we can talk about a little later.

2:45 Ayesha 

Yeah, absolutely. And so you mentioned the kind of revenue reductions from the province. In the midst of all this COVID stuff, there have been some major transformations announced for the Peterborough area in particular. I wonder if you could get into how the province funding is changing on things like employment services?

3:02 Will Pearson 

Sure, yeah. So this actually dates back to before COVID-19. But the province is trying to do a pretty big overhaul of how it delivers employment services to people who are on social assistance. And they are kind of piloting that in the Peterborough region before they roll it out across the rest of the province. And so what that involves is– Under the old model, which is still in operation in most of the province, municipalities deliver employment services to people on social assistance. So that’s things like–

3:27 Ayesha 

That’s Ontario Works, right?

3:30 Will Pearson 

Yeah. So things like I guess, you know, help with your resume help getting connected to appropriate jobs help, you know, finding the training that you might need to access the labor market so that you can get off social assistance and get into employment. So municipalities used to deliver that, and under the new model, that will be open to a competitive process, and any organization can bid to deliver those services. And while the city of Peterborough and a couple of neighboring municipalities did apply to continue delivering those services, Fleming College was chosen as the operator so we’re kind of in the midst right now of making that transition. And the city has received a pretty significant budget cut, because they’ll no longer be delivering that service. The province is cutting $1.6 million from the city’s budget. Most of that gets recouped by layoffs, because the city will be laying off people that used to deliver those services. But that doesn’t quite cover it; there’s still about $100,000 left over that the city will be on the hook for.

4:33 Ayesha 

Right so the city is no longer providing the employment services that are part of the Ontario Works program, but there’s — what are they continuing to operate?

4:42 Will Pearson 

So they would still, you know, administer the benefits that people receive through social assistance. And then they also will continue to provide life — what’s called life stabilization supports. And so, as you can imagine, not everyone who’s on social assistance is ready to go get a job and is ready to access the labor market. Either because they have mental health challenges or addictions or maybe they don’t have housing. And for those individuals, it doesn’t, you know, they need to, they need help with those kinds of challenges before they can access the labor market, and so municipalities will continue to deliver addiction services, homelessness services, mental health referrals, but they’ll no longer be involved in really connecting people to the labor market once they’re ready.

5:30 Ayesha 

Okay. And that’ll be that’s an interesting conversation to dig into more at a later time. But how we can kind of see this in the budget is we can see the Ontario Works Administration and Employment Services line. It’s being reduced by about 13%. If I’m reading this, right, and

5:50 Will Pearson 

The expenditures are being reduced by about 13%. Yeah, if you look at the provincial revenues are decreasing by 22%. And that’s the $1.6 million cut. But what you referred to is the expenditures, which is only decreasing by $1.5 million, and that’s so

6:08 Ayesha 

The city’s making that up?

6:09 Will Pearson 

Yeah, so the city’s getting $1.6 million dollars less from the province, they’re only spending $1.5 million less. And so there’s $100,000, that is contributing to these budget pressures that Armstrong was discussing with me.

6:22 Ayesha 

Gotcha. So to kind of move out of social assistance for a second, there’s also been some changes to Children’s Services Administration. Do you wanna talk about that a little bit?

6:32  Will Pearson 

Yeah. So there’s a couple changes coming down the line from the province in how particularly the administration of Children’s Services gets funded. Previously, the province funded 100% of administration costs for delivering children’s services. And starting in 2021, the province will only fund 50% of those costs. And so the city has to come up with that 50%, the County contributes a little bit to this as well. So the County is going to be upping its contribution to these expenses. But at the end of the day, this is actually another example of– it works out to about $100,000, again, that the city is going to have to find additional dollars to cover those expenses.

7:11 Ayesha 

Mm hmm. Yeah. And you’d mentioned that Ellen Armstrong said that this was a tough budget year, in particular, because of these provincial funding changes. What are some of the service cuts that have been proposed for 2021?

7:22 Will Pearson 

There’s two main service cuts that are being proposed in social services. The first one is a change to discretionary benefits. So there’s a proposed cut to the recreation benefit that people on social assistance receive. And then the other cut is to a program called poverty reduction initiatives. And that is proposed to be cut by 50%.

7:43 Ayesha 

So just to talk about the first one first: discretionary benefits, what are those?

7:52 Will Pearson 

So there’s two kinds of benefits that people on social assistance receive mandatory and discretionary. Mandatory benefits are just what they sound like: the municipality has to provide them. And those are you know what people usually associate with social assistance, which is a shelter allowance, so money to help you pay for your housing, and basic living allowance, so money for food. Mandatory benefits also include some prescription drugs, eye exams, and mandatory benefits are 100% funded by the province, and so that doesn’t have an impact on the municipal budget. There are other benefits that municipalities can decide to offer to their social assistance clients. And if they do provide them, the province only funds them up to a maximum of $10 per case per month. And currently, Peterborough provides about $15 per case per month in discretionary benefits. And so that extra $5 is paid by the city.

8:51 Ayesha 

I see. So what kind of falls under discretionary benefits, what are we talking about?

8:55 Will Pearson 

So discretionary benefits are also health benefits. At the public meeting for public delegations on Monday night, a couple of people spoke that were concerned about discretionary benefits. One of them was Joanne Bazak-Brokking.

9:10 Joanne Bazak-Brokking 

Discretionary benefits are only called discretionary because it requires a worker to make a decision. They cover health items such as eyeglasses, dentures and emergency dental care and hearing aids. Discretionary benefits also cover subsidized bus passes and contribute to basic funeral expenses. Budget 2021 will remove $142,568 from the discretionary benefit budget, that’s on page 171. This policy change will significantly reduce the capacity to meet essential health needs for people already hit very hard by COVID-19.

9:53 Will Pearson 

So this the city spends about $700,000 on its contribution to providing discretionary benefits and city staff in the draft budget of proposing a cut to that and the benefit in particular that they’re planning on, or proposing to cut is the recreation benefit. And this provided and continues to provide today I guess, up to $200 per child per year to families to help those kids access recreation activities and social activities.

10:23 Ayesha 

Okay, and that’s being wiped out completely? Or will there still be access to recreation services?

10:30 Will Pearson 

So about 1500 children accessed this benefit in 2019, I should say. And, yes, to your question, the city is trying to mitigate the impact of this cut in one key way, Armtrong explains to me and that’s — the recreation department, which is outside of social services, has its own subsidies for people who are on low income. And starting next year, the plan is to broaden the eligibility for those subsidies to include people that are on social assistance. And so someone who is losing access to this benefit will be able to go to a city run recreation facility and access this subsidy. So that’s one way that they’re kind of mitigating that impact and the budget for the recreation department is being increased by $75,000, to anticipate that demand that there might be more people coming, that are losing access to that benefit. I should say, though, that the amount that the recreation benefit for people on social assistance is being cut is more than $75,000. So while the city is trying to mitigate the impact of this, you know, still amounts to a service reduction, it still amounts to a cut.

11:40 Ayesha 

Okay. But it’s part of this larger pot of money that also includes health benefits, right?

11:46 Will Pearson 

Mm hmm. And the city — one of the reasons why I spoke to Ellen Armstrong about this, and she pointed out that one of the reasons why, or an additional thing that’s happening this year is the city really wants to prioritize health benefits in its discretionary benefits. When the discretionary benefit program was reviewed, the division noticed that the amount of money that they were providing folks to access you know, dental care or dentures just wasn’t enough to cover the actual costs of dentist work right now. Because I think that those rates were developed about 10 years ago, and dentist work has gotten more expensive since then. And so while, they are cutting this recreation benefit, they’re not — They’re taking some of the money that they save from that cut and actually investing it in other health benefits like dental benefits and denture benefits.

12:38 Ayesha 

So that’s discretionary benefits, getting a cut. You also talked about poverty reduction initiatives. What are those?

12:44 Will Pearson 

Yeah, good question. And an important question. When I saw that in the budget, I didn’t know what they were. And I think that just is an example of how important it is to ask questions and dig a little bit deeper into this document, because you don’t always know from the document itself. And so I asked Armstrong what this program is, and she gave me a pretty, pretty good explanation of it.

13:04 Ellen Armstrong 

There are many items that we cover, we have the provision of baby supply, both for social assistance recipients and low income residents. And we have a fund called Helping Hands, which uses small amounts to cover emergencies, such as if somebody runs out of food in a month and there’s no access to a food bank, or over the counter medication, bus fare, taxi fares. When somebody comes in and there’s an emergency that they need something for, we have a bit of money set aside for that. The baby supplies that can be covered are things like car seats, cribs and booster seats. You can imagine if someone’s in receipt of social assistance, and has a baby that they have to have that just to get the baby home from the hospital. So that’s what we use some of that money for. The remaining amount was used to support other funding applications that reduce poverty and promote social inclusion in the City and County. And so things like the recent rural transportation pilot, the completion of the Age Friendly plan, the pilot site that worked out of — that created a Havelock hub. We funded that for the first year, the initial One City program in downtown we gave them some startup funding for that for the first year. We also supported the low income dental clinic at the health unit and keeping kids healthy program. So if there’s something where somebody needs a bit of extra money to get something that’s socially beneficial going, we would seed fund it I guess is the best word.

14:51 Will Pearson 

So it’s as Armstrong said it helps people to get baby supplies, grocery cards, taxi rides, if they need them, and then this other seed funding for other poverty reduction projects in the city.  don’t exactly know how this cut is going to affect those different programs. In 2019, the baby supplies were $30,000, the helping hands fund so that’s like grocery help things like that, was $35,000. And then the seed funding was $75,000. So that all added up to about $140,000. And that’s the number that’s going to cut by 50%. So it’ll be about $70,000. And I’m not sure which of those programs is going to be, receive that cut. 

15:39 Ayesha 

Right. Okay, so those are the cuts. There’s also a couple areas that are getting a little bit of a boost. In this draft budget. Can you talk a little bit about what we know about that? I think it’s in the housing portfolio in particular.

15:50 Will Pearson 

Yeah, homelessness. That’s one area where the city is planning or the draft budget proposes to spend a little bit more money. As I said earlier in our conversation, that’s just a reflection of the increased need, and the increased severity of homelessness in our city right now, especially during COVID-19. And so the city’s contribution to its homelessness programs is expected to rise by about 28%.

16:17 Ayesha 

And what do we know about why those costs might be going up, especially around homelessness?

16:24 Will Pearson 

Well the city is planning on opening a new 24-seven overflow shelter. And the overflow shelter is currently only run at night. And so staffing it for an extra 12 hours a day is going to be more expensive. I think that social distancing is just reducing the capacity of some of the shelters in Peterborough, and that’s driving up costs. And there’s more information about this is – we’re recording this on Tuesday, November 17, and my understanding is that a report is coming to council next week and will be released this Thursday about how funding of the shelter system is changing. And so I’m looking forward to that report and learning a little bit more about how and why funding of the shelter system is changing.

17:09 Ayesha 

Mm-hmm, and that’s on homelessness, there’s also affordable housing initiatives in this portfolio, but we’re going to give that it’s own episode. So we’ll dive in the coming weeks… But this has been a look at the draft budget – all of the things we’ve been talking about are draft changes that staff is proposing. What are you looking at in the next week as Council deliberates? What do you think might change?

17:33 Will Pearson 

Yeah. So next week, council gets to take a look at this budget and decide how they feel about it. And I’m yeah, I’m really interested to see how council responds in particular to these, the two service reductions or cuts that are happening in the social services. If we remember back to last year when one of the proposed cuts was the closure of city-run daycares. And, yeah, Council was just not comfortable with that. And so I’m interested to see how this plays out next week.

18:03 Ayesha 

Yeah, absolutely. I think like talking to Dean a bit about the pressures council’s facing, especially because of this year because of COVID. Like, childcare is particularly a pressure point for a lot of families and folks hurting because of a lack of employment due to this recession. It’s an interesting budget to consider, and I think it’ll be interesting to watch as it plays out. 

So thanks for walking us through it, Will, super appreciate your time. Any final thoughts?

18:31 Will Pearson


18:32 Ayesha

Okay, well, thanks.

18:38 Ayesha

That’s all for Peterborough Currents this week. On our website you’ll find an article write-up of all the information shared in this episode, as well as a transcript in the show notes. 

Coming up next week, we’ll be talking about the climate change action plan, affordable housing and more. I hope you can join us for that. 

Music in this episode comes courtesy of the Mayhemingways. My name is Ayesha Barmania. Thanks very much for being with us today, and I’ll talk to you more later. Have a great weekend.


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