Over 90 Belle River and Lakeshore residents came together February 18 to call on the Ontario government to provide a publicly-run ServiceOntario office in Belle River.
The standing room only crowd included several Lakeshore Town Council members, Deputy Mayor Al Fazio, Essex MP Tracey Ramsey, and Windsor-Tecumseh MPP Percy Hatfield. Essex MPP Taras Natyshak was the featured speaker for the afternoon. OPSEU Region 1 Vice President Len Elliott was the emcee.
The meeting started with a brief history of the Belle River ServiceOntario office by Mickey Riccardi, President of OPSEU Local 154. Riccardi’s local represents over 400 public sector workers in the Windsor and Lakeshore area, including ServiceOntario employees from the publicly-run Windsor office.
It was these employees who ran the Belle River office the last time it changed owners and moved to a larger location in 2013. “At that time, the government sent in qualified ServiceOntario employees from the Windsor Office to staff the counter for this privately owned location,” Riccardi recalled. “It was staffed for well over a year with public service employees during the transition until the new owner took possession.”
Four years later, as of this past January, the location is without an owner again. This time, however, the office is closed, leaving the thousands of residents without a ServiceOntario office. The government has advertised for a new private owner, and does not expect the office to be up and running again until late June 2017.
MPP Natyshak considers this situation unacceptable. He shared his strong support for a public ServiceOntario office in Belle River. “We own it is not just a catchphrase,” said Natyshak. “We pay for public services with our taxes. These are our public services. We own them, and they should be public,” he said to hearty applause.
One resident who identified himself as “Andy” said he had applied to become a private operator but withdrew his application once he understood the economics of running a private ServiceOntario office. He said that the fee that the province pays the private owner per transaction is so low that there is no way he would be able to pay front counter staff properly and also make enough to run the business and pay himself.
Other residents shared their experiences of travelling to private offices in neighbouring communities and enduring lengthy waits for services. They were frustrated that their local office was closed and that it will be months before the office opens again under a new private owner.
“If this [Belle River ServiceOntario] centre was publicly-owned, it wouldn’t be closed right now,” responded Natyshak. “We can fix it. But it requires a government that makes it a priority.”
Residents asked what they can do to make that happen. Elected officials from all three levels of government present advised residents to contact Tracy MacCharles, Minister of Government and Consumer Services, and Premier Kathleen Wynne to tell them they want a public ServiceOntario office.
Lakeshore councillor Linda McKinley and Deputy Mayor Fazio encouraged residents to contact their elected representatives by phone, email and letters. “Your council wants the best for this community, and we take direction from you,” said McKinley.
Federal MP Tracey Ramsey advised residents to copy their MPP Natyshak on any correspondence they send to the minister or Premier so that his office can keep track of their support.
Windsor and District Labour Council Executive member Mark Vander Voort spoke about the fightback campaign that residents of Windsor undertook against the outsourcing of janitors at the city’s only long-term care home. While the services were ultimately contracted out, their campaign came within one city council vote of succeeding. Vander Voort told the residents not to give up – that the only way to stop privatization is to keep up the pressure on the Liberal government.
Organizers from OPSEU’s We Own It campaign echoed the call for residents to contact Minister MacCharles and the Premier and demand a public ServiceOntario office in Belle River. As they were leaving, the residents filled out cards supporting public services, which will be delivered to the minister.