Infrastructure cash announced at municipal group meeting

·2 min read

Federal and provincial governments are hoping infrastructure spending can jump-start an economic recovery in Saskatchewan towns, cities and other municipalities whose economies have been rocked by COVID-19.

Government Relations Minister Don McMorris told attendees at the Municipalities of Saskatchewan convention on Tuesday that the federal and provincial governments had earmarked $13.6 million for 30 projects across the province.

The cash — roughly $6.9 million from the province and about $6.7 million from the federal government — will replace and improve infrastructure and ideally spur job growth, a Tuesday news release said.

"Whether it's ... a rink, whether it's a walking trail, whatever it might be," McMorris said. "It's extremely important that money keeps flowing and doesn't come to a halt."

Expected projects include replacing rural bridges, upgrading water and waste water systems, decommissioning landfills and updating recreation facilities, he said.

He touted other recent government spending, particularly last year's Municipal Economic Enhancement Program (MEEP) of which he said roughly 99 per cent of its $150 million has flowed to local governments.

Earlier in the day, NDP Leader Ryan Meili told the convention he wants a longer-term commitment to that funding, while pushing for expanded broadband access.

Meili also raised concerns that falling PST revenue from the pandemic may force local councils to cut services or raise taxes in coming years.

McMorris pointed to the $275 million of PST revenue sharing directed at local governments in 2021 to 2022. He acknowledged that an economic slowdown will likely translate to less spending and thus less cash for local governments in the future.

Meili argued the province should change its formula for dispensing that money, saying it "works in ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times."

Meili urged more support in the form of operating dollars for municipalities, whose leaders may be faced with tough budget choices down the road "because the premier took a hard line stance that the sharing formula has to always be the same."

McMorris said the economic forecast for the province is still uncertain, adding that any impact on PST revenue sharing wouldn't materialize for two years.

The province plans to "cross those bridges when we get to (them)," McMorris said.

He also asked the convention to reconsider its rebrand from Saskatchewan Association of Urban Municipalities to Municipalities of Saskatchewan.

Rodger Hayward, who was elected president of the group on Monday, said that will ultimately be up to members.

Under any name, he predicts a two- to three-year recovery from COVID-19. To help that effort, he advocates an extension of MEEP funding, and future discussions around possibly freezing revenue sharing to protect municipal budgets.

For councils with projects already planned, "it's just nice to see the federal and provincial infrastructure money flowing," he said.

— With files from Arthur White-Crummey

Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix