Selkirk MLA Alan Lagimodiere reviews the Throne Speech, which was presented at the Manitoba Legislature Nov. 21. (Brook Jones/Selkirk Journal/Postmedia Network)
The Manitoba government will consider transferring some services it currently delivers to municipalities, raising fears they’re about to download new costs as well.
A provincial throne speech, Nov. 21, focused on cost-control revealed a service review will aim to “streamline service delivery such as road maintenance and renewal, snow clearing, water control and drainage at the most appropriate level of government.”
Premier Brian Pallister said that effort is primarily meant to remove service duplication, which he expects would trigger savings. When asked if Winnipeg and other municipalities should expect to become responsible for more services as a result, the premier confirmed it is “a real possibility.”
“We would take a look at where municipalities can shine … and develop appropriate models to make sure they’re able to do that,” said Pallister.
On the flip side, Pallister noted it’s also possible the province could take on services that are currently municipal.
Other elements of the throne speech raised additional questions among municipal leaders. For example, while the document vows to ensure Manitoba leverages all available federal dollars from the Building Canada Fund, it doesn’t back a City of Winnipeg request to spend $182 million of that cash on the city’s regional road repairs. The federal government won’t approve that request unless the province endorses it, which it still has yet to do.
The province also made no mention of restoring a funding commitment that previously covered half of all municipal transit operating costs, or a growth-based funding model that cities and towns have repeatedly requested.
Winnipeg’s mayor said the absence of that support was a disappointment.
“What we were looking for in this speech from the throne was a sign that the government has the priorities of Winnipeggers in mind and, unfortunately, we did not hear that today,” said Mayor Brian Bowman.
Bowman said shifting more services to Winnipeg without accompanying funding threatens to charge costs once shared by the entire province to Winnipeggers alone, who make up two-thirds of the province’s population.
“What we have seen is downloading in terms of the costs of services that are outside of (provincial) basket funding and so obviously that’s putting the squeeze on Winnipeg taxpayers,” said Bowman.
The city tabled its own preliminary budget Nov. 22, which the mayor has warned will include “pain” for transit operators and riders, thanks to the removal of the provincial transit pledge.
The mayor called for more consultation with the province to avoid such “unilateral” changes in the future.
“We don’t want to have decisions dictated and then downloaded on to Winnipeg taxpayers,” said Bowman.
But Manitoba’s Municipal Relations Minister Jeff Wharton said the province sees an opportunity to alter shared services to become more efficient through the review, including within snow-clearing.
“We’ve heard from municipalities saying, ‘Look, we drive down the road, we see our grader go down one road and the province’s grader go down another.’ So why don’t we look at working together … to try to streamline the process, so we’re not having equipment that’s overlapped?,” Wharton said. “With grass cutting, it’s the same thing … We can look at better ways to save the taxpayer money.”
Wharton said that overlap often falls along roads in smaller communities surrounding Winnipeg.
Both Pallister and Wharton wouldn’t specifically answer if municipalities would receive new funds, if they’re asked to add or expand their services.
“Those are discussions we need to have. It’s a partnership,” Wharton said.
Some union representatives said they’re concerned about the impact any service transfer would have on staff.
“If we’ve already got the equipment and the members there … Why would we offload to municipalities? To me, that is just shirking responsibilities,” said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union. “You’re going to offload, say, highway workers now? What does that mean when we’ve got to do snow-clearing?”