Municipal leaders are relieved there will be no direct cuts coming to local government funding in 2017, says the head of the province’s municipal lobby.
Provincial funding for municipalities will remain at the same level in 2017 as it was last year, said Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM) president Chris Goertzen shortly after hearing details of the provincial budget last week.
“There’s a few positives we can take out of this,” he said. “Obviously they have a fiscal challenge in front of them, and they aren’t balancing the books on the backs of municipalities, which we think is favourable.”
Provincial Finance Minister Cameron Friesen laid out a 2017-18 budget April 11 with an overall $840-million deficit, based on a four per cent increase in revenues at $16.1 billion and a 3.1 per cent increase in expenditures at $17.06 billion compared to its 2016-17 budget.
“Some of our provincial neighbours are pursuing different paths involving stark decisions, choosing either higher taxes or pursuing increased spending,” he said in a release, while his budget “avoids such drastic measures.”
Goertzen said municipalities were also watching for signs the province would follow through on a pledge for a ‘fair say’ for municipalities. The way funds will now flow to local government is evidence of that happening, he said.
“We also see them increasing some flexibility for municipalities through unconditional grants to municipalities, rather than conditional grants,” he said, adding past grants have often been so narrowly focused it limited access or use of them.
“It’s a small move but we think it’s a good omen for the future discussions we’ll have about basket funding,” he said.
Municipalities were also closely watching to see what the province would allocate for infrastructure investment and local economic development, and signs for looking for a “continued partnership” between the all levels of government.
Goertzen said AMM will need to take a closer look at how the $370 million the province is allocating for municipal and provincial infrastructure will be divied up.
They’ll also be looking for clarification on where the Building Canada Fund for Manitoba is at.
“It wasn’t mentioned. It has been crucial for us tackling our infrastructure needs. We want to continue to see infrastructure continue to be addressed collaboratively with the provincial and federal governments.”
Last week’s budget included a 3.4 per cent boost to overall infrastructure spending, allocating $747 million for roads, highways, bridges and flood protection, $641 million for health, education, and housing infrastructure as well as the $370 million. The budget speech also highlighted $60 million in investments specifically in flood protection, drainage and other water control infrastructure.
Local governments also face all kinds of red tape headaches which have made government hard to deal with, Goertzen said. So they welcome the introduction of Bill 22 — The Regulatory Accountability Act — which aims to reduce administrative burdens on local government as well as non-profit groups and citizens.
Municipalities have been especially hurt by administrative delays, particularly related to processes with the Municipal Board processes and Public Utilities Board, which have cost both time and money, Goertzen said.
“It (red tape reduction) is really key for efficiency of municipalities,” said Goertzen. “Delays are our biggest challenge. Those delays have cost municpalities a lot of money over the years.”
They will need to continue asking questions about the province’s overall plan to spur economic growth in Manitoba, Goertzen added.
The 2017-18 budget speech mentioned economic growth for northern Manitoba, working with indigenous communities and boosting tourism.
“What we were looking for was clearly a plan from this government on economic development,” Goertzen said.
In 2016 AMM tabled a draft report called The Rural Economic Development Strategy, citing need for improved economic development service delivery and concerns about an overly bureaucratic mode of service delivery.