$2.2 billion territorial budget proposes GNWT job cuts

On May 24, GNWT Minister of Finance Caroline Wawzonek announced the 2024-25 territorial budget, totalling $2.2 billion and, potentially, 91 fewer public service positions.

Departments will be saving money through $107.9 million in expiring programs and $48.4 million in budget savings, including the possible elimination of 91 positions, 35 of which are already vacant. There is, however, potential for the GNWT to “redeploy these employees within the organization.”

“The public service has grown far faster than the private sector over the past few years. This means not only significantly increased public cost but also has implications for the availability of labour to the private sector. We need to look carefully at this growth,” Wawzonek said.

This year’s budget is only $24 million higher than last year’s, the minister noted. She added that she’s projecting a $294 million operating surplus for the year, which includes $110 million in federal disaster relief assistance.

“This surplus is the largest projected operating surplus in 25 years,” she said. “Our revenue forecast is increased two per cent from 2023-24 to reach to reach $2.6 billion.”

Priority areas

The priorities of the 2024-25 budget, she explained, are issues related to “housing, strong economic foundations, accessible healthcare, healing from trauma, and safe residences and communities.”

Among the minister’s budget considerations were $42 million in additional spending to support increased program costs.

“Key costs pressures that we need to address in the fiscal strategy are related to spending pressures in health and the low water levels that are challenging for the NWT Power Corporation and Marine Transportation Service,” she said.

She also proposed adding $37 million to the Department of Health and Social Services budget, which “reflects the additional needs over the past year,” as well as an additional $1.6 million in spending on the transitional housing addictions recovery program.

“The program is expected to have locations open this year in Yellowknife and Inuvik,” she said.

Wawzonek also proposed spending $30 million “to help keep power rates stable” in the face of the territory’s high cost of living, and $21 million for fire suppression. Last year, it cost the NWT about $120 million for fire suppression alone — that rose to about $250 million when evacuation costs were added.

Other budget proposals included $393,000 “to complete the Mineral Resources Act regulations” aimed at helping the territory adjust to the coming closure of its diamond mines, and $529,000 “to increase the NWT’s film and media strategies film rebate program,” which “helps with high production costs and supports the NWT’s film commission.”

Tourism will see an additional $100,000, and $2.6 million has been allocated for Canada-NWT Early Learning and Child Care.

Anti-crime measures

The RCMP could also receive more money through the new budget, as the minister proposed $1.3 million to support the creation of a “territorial crime reduction unit that will serve the entire territory with specialized resources to support investigations and proactive enforcement aimed at disrupting illicit drug supply.” There would also be funds to hire four new officers through the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program, and two additional general duty officers at the Fort Providence detachment. In addition, the minister proposed spending “$327,000 this budget and $744,000 annually in future budgets to enhance the RCMP emergency response team, comprising officers with advanced training in equipment who will assists in the successful resolution of dangerous situations.”

In terms of capital investments, $94 million is allocated for highways and roads, with $63 million earmarked for airports and runways and $55 million for healthcare facilities and equipment, $13 million has been set aside for housing and $3 million for new education facilities and renovations for existing learning facilities.

As for debt, Wawzonek revealed that total borrowing, including government agencies, is forecast at $1.62 billion — only $184 million below the federally-imposed debt wall. Total debt is meant to shrink by $49 million by the end of March 2025 for this budget. Long-term debt is also meant to downsize by $15 million.

The Finance minister also acknowledged that the GNWT will fail to meet its target of $150 million in savings this year, adding that “this was never intended to be an austerity budget.”

She repeatedly emphasized the importance of cutting back on unnecessary costs, urging GNWT departments to search for areas where spending can be reduced, and to operate within existing budgets.

“Departments are being asked to carefully evaluate what they can do without, or put another way, to budget within what they already have,” she said.

Convert jail to wellness centre?

She also shared several examples of ways the GNWT will look reduce costs, including the closure of Fort Smith Correctional Complex, which costs $2.7 million per year to run.

“We currently spend millions of dollars to run the Fort Smith Correctional Complex that has capacity for 21 inmates but on average only has 10,” she said. “We are planning to close it, but not walk away from a valuable asset with well-trained staff. Over the coming months, the government will examine how this asset could be repurposed into a wellness centre. To do so might ultimately require some reinvestment for renovations, but to not do so leaves us spending money that is not effective or efficient.”

The budget doesn’t contain any new taxes, though it raised the vaping tax, which the GNWT now anticipates will net $250,000 annually.

Wawzonek said this first budget of the 20th assembly “is step one in the drive for fiscal improvement.”

“We are changing how we deliver on priorities in a way that is realistic, responsible, and always with an eye on being financially ready for whatever the future might bring,” the minister told the legislative assembly. “The GNWT has a responsibility to ensure that it can always respond to emergencies and provide support in times of emergency events.

“This is a practical and realistic budget aimed at reducing our overall expenditures in 2024-25 to help meet the benchmarks we set to both restore balance and increase our fiscal capacity to deal with unexpected events.”

MLAs are expected to review the budget and then vote on it before mid-June.

Tom Taylor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, NWT News/North