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Decision on safe injection site deferred again; council calls for consultant's report

Third-party consultant expected to report back to general committee by the end of October

City councillors again deferred a decision on a proposed safe injection site in Barrie, this time until a third-party consultant can have a closer look at other such facilities across Canada. 

On Monday night at city hall, council voted 6-4 in favour of hiring a consultant, at a cost of $50,000, and report back to general committee by the end of October.

The Gilbert Centre, Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) have been leading the push in the past several months to open an SCS in the city, which has one of the worst opioid problems among Ontario cities and is getting worse. An SCS is a place for people to use their own drugs in a clean and safe environment. 

The public health groups must apply to the province for an SCS, but part of the application includes an endorsement from municipal council. 

"If you're opposed to something, just say no. Don't defer it," Mayor Jeff Lehman said bluntly, adding council should rely on medical experts in their own community rather than placing the onus on an outside consultant. 

Lehman said asking a consultant to gather more information is akin to an "abdication of council to kick it to a third party."

Earlier this month, council deferred a decision whether to endorse an SCS at 90 Mulcaster, which public health officials had determined to be their preferred location.

Council has previously heard from several people opposed to the location, which led to the health groups behind the proposal being told to investigate a "more suitable location" for the facility, which still requires provincial approval. One location that council wanted the group to look at specifically was unused space at the Maple Avenue bus terminal.

Public health officials have maintained that 90 Mulcaster is their preferred location for an SCS, calling the other sites "inferior."

When Coun. Gary Harvey said he learned that the group behind the provincial application was standing firm on their preferred location and were "defying us, that doesn't sit well with me."

Harvey said that "sealed the deal" for him that a third-party investigation is needed. 

"There's just too many unknowns," he added. "It really comes down to getting the decision right, because we all know that once it's up and running, it's not moving anywhere."

Some on council still aren't sold on 90 Mulcaster, however. 

Deputy Mayor Barry Ward asked if council would endorse 90 Mulcaster if the consultant's report came back in favour of that site. 

"There's no way I can answer that question, because I don't have the investigator's report," said Coun. Mike McCann, who moved the amendment to seek more information on the hot-button topic. "I can't answer hypotheticals."

McCann said the whole application process has been "flawed." He suggested it should go in an industrial area. 

"We don't have enough information ... (and) we are divided as a community," said McCann, who added council shouldn't rush to any decisions that has such a high-profile impact on the city. "We probably have one chance to do this."

Coun. Robert Thomson said he is against the 90 Mulcaster site. 

"A bad decision today is a bad decision tomorrow," he said. 

Ward said he was concerned further delays would kill the SCS application. 

Those concerns were echoed by Coun. Keenan Aylwin, whose ward includes the downtown area. He said any further delays would be a "death knell" for an SCS in Barrie. 

"More time means more deaths," he said. 

After the meeting, Matt Turner, harm reduction co-ordinator at the Gilbert Centre, called council's move "disappointing," adding he doesn't believe any new information will be unearthed by a consultant that hasn't already been presented. 

"This definitely leaves us in limbo," Turner said, adding the group does not have any other potential locations in mind. "We'll have to re-evaluate where we go next and what our other options are." 

When talks began around an SCS in Barrie, the city ranked third in the province for opioid-related deaths.

It has since risen to second place on the dubious list.

Aylwin said he fears that, without further action, Barrie could soon top the list. 

"We've failed," he said. "When we've gotten to the point where there's this much division in the community, we've failed.

"If we get into our corners and can't talk to each other, then there's no hope."

Coun. Doug Shipley said he had been staunchly opposed to safe injection sites, but a trip to Guelph to see that city's facility changed his mind. 

"I see the merits now," he said, adding there's no perfect location for it in the community. 

Shipley said it may be time to step back and "think fresh."

Coun. Natalie Harris noted how divisive the issue has been, noting "it's been a hard road to get to some middle ground."

"We have so much more work to do as a community," she added. 

Coun. Jim Harris, who works for the CMHA, declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in the debate.