'Wide range of emotions' for non-profits as budget holds future of Neighbourhoods Alive!

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Manitoba's non-profit sector is on pause as it awaits the upcoming provincial budget, which is expected to be austere. 

"I am experiencing a wide range of emotions," said Kyle Mason, board chair of the North End Community Renewal Corporation and founder of the North End Family Centre.

The budget will drop on Tuesday and it's expected to bring sweeping changes, but what's not known is the future of the Neighbourhoods Alive! program, which was "paused" at the end of November.

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The Manitoba government launched Neighbourhoods Alive! in 2000 as a long-term social and economic strategy to support community-driven revitalization. It targeted older neighbourhoods across Manitoba, originally focusing on Winnipeg, Brandon and Thompson.

Neighbourhood Alive! later expanded to include other communities, including Flin Flon, The Pas, Dauphin, Portage la Prairie and Selkirk.

All 13 of Manitoba's community renewal corporations rely on money from Neighbourhoods Alive!, which provided $5.2 million in funding in 2014-15 to the different community programs.

When the program was put on hold, the province stopped taking any new funding requests while it was under review. Now, four months later, Mason said the government has been pretty tight-lipped about what is going to happen.

"[It] caused a bit of a shift within the non-profit world because Neighbourhoods Alive!, for years, was a pretty stable and fairly predictable way for non-profits to receive funding from the provincial government," he said.

"So when they put it on pause it made everybody wonder what was coming next."

'Tremendous amount of uncertainty'

In Winnipeg, some non-profits who receive funding directly from Neighbourhoods Alive! or indirectly through community renewal corporations have taken steps, particularly as the end of the fiscal year came closer, to be prepared for a funding shift. There have been layoffs and layoff notices and a few neighbourhood associations are already drawing to a close, Mason said.

In the not-for-profit sector, organizations are running on a shoestring budget, said Kate Kehler, executive director at Social Planning Council of Winnipeg (SPCW).

"They don't necessarily have other resources that they can rely on in case the funding is not there," she said.

While SPCW doesn't rely on the funding, Kehler said they work with organizations that do.

"It just creates a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the sector and you have people that are working under layoff notices and that is not a good place to be," she said.

"They might often have to hinting to their participants in their programs 'Hey we might not be around,' which can break trust."

Kehler and Mason said they are optimistic the government's review of the program will show the value-for-dollar of Neighbourhoods Alive! and are open to improvements if need be.

"We are all in the not for profit sector so we are a hopeful bunch. We always tend to work on we think something will work out," Kehler said.

"I'm optimistic the government sees the value for it, that any money that they invest through Neighbourhoods Alive! comes back many times fold in terms of community renewal, a lot of community good and a lot of lives being changed," Mason added.

Hints at cuts, but not what kind

Before the landslide election win last year, Premier Brian Pallister had promised to slow the growth in government spending each year with limited expenditures rather than deep cuts. The PCs first budget came fast after the election and only brought modest changes to the province's finances.

Political analyst Roger Turenne said this budget will be when the "rubber hits the road" and Pallister has to deal with the issues confronting the province — including the deficit.  

"It's very, very hard to tell [what to expect in the budget]. Mr. Pallister has sort of hinted at major cuts and its going to be painful," Turenne said.

"It's a question of smart cuts or just cuts for the sake of cuts and that remains to be seen what we are going to get," he added.

Pallister ran on three things — not raising taxes, maintaining services and reducing the deficit — but Turenne said only two of those are really possible.

"The interesting question is which one of these three commitments that they made will have to be sacrificed," he said.

To keep costs down into the future, keeping Neighbourhoods Alive! shouldn't be cut now, Mason said.

"At the end of the day, if things dramatically change and there's a lot less dollars associated with this program, ultimately I wouldn't be surprised that if in the long term, or even in the medium term, it would actually cost the province a lot more money to try to fix these things because non-profits tend to be a lot more flexible, a lot more value for dollar," he said.