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Vaughan hospital project bogged down by infighting

Five years after residents started paying for the land there is little to show for their commitment.
Dec. 9, 2014
By Noor Javed

Vaughan’s efforts to get a long-awaited hospital project off the ground remain bogged down by infighting, questions about secret meetings, and the threat of lawsuits - despite assurances from city officials that the project is on track.

City residents are footing the $80-million bill for the 32-hectare site at Jane and Major Mackenzie Sts. They will be paying for the land through a surcharge that was added to their property taxes in 2009 and is expected to continue till 2022.

For years, residents have complained that Vaughan - now home to more than 300,000 people - is the biggest city in Canada without its own hospital. Residents currently use Mackenzie Health in Richmond Hill or Etobicoke General in Toronto.

“We have been waiting for this hospital for way too long,” said city hall watcher Carrie Liddy, who has been tracking the hospital project since it received a provincial nod in 2007. “I think most residents don’t know what to believe any more.”

There was a buzz when the city started early ground work to build roads and sewer infrastructure on the site near Canada’s Wonderland in the summer. But many also perceived it is a way for the city to show some movement on the hospital file before the Oct. 27 election.

Officially, construction is to begin next year, but that’s contingent on two factors: first, a finalized lease between the city and Mackenzie Health, the group the province appointed to build the hospital; and secondly, the city’s guarantee to Mackenzie Health that it will get all of the land it needs for the project.

“Ultimately the hospital will require 50 acres (20 hectares) to fulfill its future growth requirements, according to the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care guidelines,” said Melina Cormier, chief of communications for Mackenzie Health. The immediate need is for 40 acres (16 hectares), Cormier said, but with a “commitment from the City of Vaughan that an additional 10 acres will be made available when the hospital is ready for expansion.”

It sounds simple enough, but a local group, the Vaughan Health Campus of Care (VHCC), headed by developer Michael DeGasperis, entered into a legally binding agreement with the city when it helped broker the land deal in 2009. Last year, DeGasperis told the Star that agreement gives the group a say over how the land should be allocated.

The VHCC was founded in 2003 to advocate for Vaughan’s first hospital, and its charitable arm helped to raise funds to build it. According to its website it is a “citizen-led, non-profit organization of community members.” DeGasperis is a board member.

But in 2011, the province distanced itself from the group, leaving DeGasperis’ group focused on developing “hospital related” uses on the remaining lands.

Last year, the VHCC said it would give up 40 acres without a fight. But DeGasperis sees Mackenzie Health’s desire for an additional 10 acres as a power grab.

“Our theory is that Mackenzie Health wishes to obtain the lands to conduct ancillary services (which is the VHCC’s vision and mandate),” he said in an interview. “They have never liked the fact that Vaughan Health Campus of Care has a valid and binding legal agreement with the city to develop the excess land around the core hospital lands and to administer the excess funds that result from the sale of those lands,” he said. “They are trying anything to get this extra 10 acres of land under their control.”

Both Mackenzie Health and the city say the hospital is their priority and they haven’t given much thought to the excess lands.

Residents in Vaughan have reason to be frustrated. The Vaughan hospital project was conceived by council in 2003 and got support from the province in 2007. Since then, there has been little progress on the project - other than the tax levy now being paid by residents.

In contrast, Oakville received approval for a hospital in 2005. The land was purchased from the province and the planning and building quickly began. Construction on the hospital is set to be done by next summer.

And even now, it’s unclear if the Vaughan land dispute could further delay the process. Regional Councillor Gino Rosati predicts the fight for the 10 acres may end up in court.

“We knew we would have to go to court to fight Michael on this contribution agreement - although we have a strong feeling we would win,” said Rosati, in a Star recent interview. “But if we try to do it now, the whole thing goes to court. What do you do? You take 40, and run with it,” he said.

DeGasperis says he has no intention of taking the city to court. Instead, he said VHCC is “more likely to start a lawsuit against Mackenzie Health than we are against the City of Vaughan.”

He also has no plans to give the $9 million in hospital donations to the VHCC’s fundraising arm.

“I want to be perfectly clear, however: what we will never do is hand over the money to the Mackenzie Health Foundation under any conditions,” he said.

He says the money is in an irrevocable trust fund and will be only used for a hospital in Vaughan if the project is finished before 2022. The hospital is scheduled to be open by 2019.

DeGasperis says that, despite past tensions, his group is committed to working with all parties if they drop the demand for the extra 10 acres.

Vaughan Councillor Marilyn Iafrate says the city just wants to move ahead. Mackenzie Health says all preparations have been made to put the project (design, build, finance) out to bid, as soon as the ground lease between the hospital and city is finalized.

“People don’t really care about the background,” said Iafrate. “They just want to know when the hospital is opening and if it’s going to happen in their lifetime.”

Liddy believes the project needs an independent supervisor appointed by the province to get the project on track.
“We need to have somebody who can come in, manage the project,” said Liddy, who recently filed a lawsuit against the city alleging they held 40 illegal closed meetings on the hospital project. She is asking the courts to force the city to hold public meetings on such issues.

“We need someone who can protect the taxpayers in Vaughan,” Liddy said.

Last month, a closed meetings investigator, Amberley Gavel Ltd., validated Liddy’s concerns after investigating a complaint filed by the VHCC about one closed meeting. It found that a meeting between councillors and Mackenzie Health representatives in January to discuss lease negotiations over the land violated the open-meeting provisions of the Municipal Act.