Budget retains municipal revenue sharing

by Phil Ambroziak

The fear of having to contend with a financial shortfall was alleviated for municipalities across Saskatchewan last week when the provincial government presented its 2015 budget March 18.

“We wanted to make sure we had a balanced budget going into this thing, so everything was on the table including municipal revenue sharing,” explained Meadow Lake MLA Jeremy Harrison.

Currently, the government commits one per cent of the revenue gained from PST each year to every municipality throughout the province. The money, which varies year-to-year and municipality-to-municipality, has become a valuable asset for communities such as the City of Meadow Lake which had already factored its share into its own budget for this year.

About a month ago, however, Premier Brad Wall suggested an adjustment to municipal revenue sharing – along with other cuts – could be forthcoming as a means of addressing losses incurred as a result of the recent drop in oil prices.

“Eventually, however, we made the determination revenue sharing is an important program,” Harrison said. “Communities have come to depend on it and it’s a good investment.”

Meadow Lake mayor Gary Vidal was pleased to see revenue sharing not only remain, but also to increase by $8.3 million over last year for a total of $265.3 million. Since the program was introduced in 2008, the amount received by municipalities has increased by more than 100 per cent.

“When talk of reducing municipal revenue sharing began, we took sort of a wait-and-see attitude remaining optimistic the government would make the right choice,” Vidal noted. “I’m pleased they listened to the concerns expressed by the municipalities and I’m pleased the province has lived up to its word.”

On Wednesday, finance minister Ken Krawetz tabled a balanced budget he promised would keep taxes low, invest in infrastructure, control operating spending and provide new incentives to create jobs. Although the document included a surplus of $107 million and an increase in overall revenue of  $14.28 billion, spending is listed as $14.17 billion, up 1.2 per cent from 2014. The budget also notes $256.4 million in health care capital projects, none of which, however, include a new long-term care facility for Meadow Lake.

“I have nothing formal to indicate this, but to my understanding the project has been deferred a year,” Vidal said.

At the end of 2014, the mayor had gone on record to express his anticipation for possibly seeing construction of the new Northland Pioneer Lodge begin this year.

“The documents are ready to go to tender,” he added. “There is a sense of disappointment right now, but I’m optimistic it will still happen – there’s no sense of the project going away entirely.”

The province is committed to funding 80 per cent of the $40 million project.

Meanwhile, Athabasca NDP MLA Buckley Belanger said he’s disappointed to see the budget make changes to such things as the Active Families Benefit, Graduate Retention Program, Research and Development Tax Credit, Seniors’ Drug Plan and Saskatchewan Employment Supplement, which are being altered to ensure their ongoing sustainability.

“They’ve made a lot of cuts that will affect lower to middle class families,” Belanger said, adding he doesn’t understand why a government that has record revenue needs to balance its budget by borrowing more money and thus increasing the province’s debt load.

“This is a good example of how this government has no vision, no plan and no strategy with regard to the future,” Belanger added. “It was just such a bizarre day in the Legislature. For a while now we’ve had a premier advocating for a tough budget, yet we’re presented with record spending and increased debt. They have failed miserably in terms of ensuring orderly management of our finances.”

According to Harrison, however, there’s nothing wrong with borrowing money if the end justifies the means.

“We did consult with SUMA, SARM and others to see if the people of Saskatchewan would be comfortable with this,” he said. “We’re willing to make our regular payments on that debt if, at the end of the day, it means we’ll continue to build things like highways, hospitals and schools.”

Meanwhile, Vidal said, as an accountant, a taxpayer and a politician, he’s happy with the budget as presented.

“Yes, there are some claw backs in terms of some of the personal benefits to people over a certain level, but the province had to face some tough decisions and I think they made the ones that are going to have a negative impact on the least amount of people,” he said.

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