N.W.T. MLAs approve $106M in additional infrastructure spending

·4 min read
Caroline Wawzonek, the N.W.T.'s Finance minister, at the tabling of the 2021-22 budget in March.   (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Caroline Wawzonek, the N.W.T.'s Finance minister, at the tabling of the 2021-22 budget in March. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The N.W.T. needs to spend an extra $106 million on infrastructure projects this year, MLAs heard Wednesday night.

This session of the house was called back so MLAs could review the government's supplementary estimates: one-time changes to departmental budgets that weren't accounted for in the budget.

These reviews can happen several times a year for any variety of unexpected expenditures or to adjust for costs that the government was not able to accurately predict when the budget was made.

A majority of the cost adjustments were for two departments: $35.9 million to Infrastructure and $27.5 million to Health and Social Services.

In both departments, the extra funds are mostly set aside for projects that "were not completed" in the last fiscal year.

Finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said some projects had difficulties getting started or continuing work during the COVID-19 pandemic. That's the case for Tulita's new healthcare centre, so the estimates earmark $13-million for that work in the upcoming year.

The territory also gets permission to carry over some of these costs from year-to-year, like $7 million for the Inuvik wind turbine project. In some cases, the amount of money provided from Ottawa to the N.W.T. for multi-year projects like that one doesn't line up with its completion date.

A stock photo of a windmill. The N.W.T. set aside an additional $7 million for Inuvik's upcoming wind farm.
A stock photo of a windmill. The N.W.T. set aside an additional $7 million for Inuvik's upcoming wind farm. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

"Some of the challenges are … about how the projects are unfolding," Wawzonek said. "[Costs] wind up getting carried over to reflect when the project is actually getting done."

The total costs are "offset" by funding lapses in the last fiscal year.

MLAs debate how money is being used

A few of the smaller items brought the ire of MLAs in the legislature, including $150,000 put aside by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) for a walk-in freezer for the North Slave office. It's being used to preserve illegally-shot caribou meat as evidence for an upcoming court case.

Jackson Lafferty, the MLA for Monfwi, said there are many other ways to use this money that would better support Tłı̨chǫ communities.

"They could create a teachers position in the communities, or a renewable resources officer position that can monitor these illegal hunters," he said. "We can do more with this money than an actual freezer."

Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, noticed the ENR department needed an extra $70,000 set aside for a new patrol vehicle in Fort Liard.

That small example, he said, shows how the N.W.T. has a problem getting its money to where it needs to go.

"How do we not manage to buy a vehicle in a year," Johnson asked the legislature.

MLAs also used the time to figure out how much work still needs to be done on some of these projects.

An aerial photo of the Snare Hydro System. MLA Kevin O'Reilly questioned the need to spend millions on a sole transmission line to Whati, when the money could fund three mini-hydro projects in the region.
An aerial photo of the Snare Hydro System. MLA Kevin O'Reilly questioned the need to spend millions on a sole transmission line to Whati, when the money could fund three mini-hydro projects in the region. (Northwest Territories Power Corporation)

Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, wanted to know what the plans are for the Whati transmission line to the Snare Forks hydroelectric facility. When finished, the line would provide Whati with 13-megawatt energy capacity.

He questioned the government's use of its funds to supply this one line, when he claimed the total cost of the project could move three communities over to mini-hydro power.

"I just don't get why our government wants to invest in this large project," he said. "I understand the need to get a sustainable power supply to Whati, [but] … I don't think this is the best way of doing it."

MLAs had 'difficulty' approving some line items

Earlier this year, the N.W.T. government approved $2.1 billion in total expenditures, with an additional $441 million for capital costs.

That was despite warnings that the territory's short term debt would surge to $692 million: inching the territory closer to its $1.8-billion borrowing limit.

At the time, senior officials in the N.W.T.'s Finance department warned that the territory's current "fiscal state is unsustainable."

"I just felt there was no way we were going to be able to get all this money out the door during the pandemic." - Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake

O'Reilly said he voted against the budget because he thought the spending was "unrealistic."

Most of the money in that budget, he continued, were expenditures carried over from the previous year — bringing with it some doubts about how quickly the territory could get this money where it's needed. He brought that same opinion to Wednesday's session.

"I just felt there was no way we were going to be able to get all this money out the door during the pandemic," O'Reilly said. "So I have difficulty approving some of these items."

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