GREAT NORTHERN PENINSULA, NL – Regionalization, resettlement, healthcare, cost-share ratios, and services for local service districts and unincorporated towns were just some of the subjects brought to the forefront during the Straits-L'Anse aux Meadows pre-budget consultation.
St. Barbe-L’Anse aux Meadows MHA Christopher Mitchelmore hosted the event Monday, Jan. 22 at the Sandy Cove Lions Club.
The consultation was an opportunity for constituents to offer ideas and insights on how spending can be reduced while returning the province to financial stability.
He introduced the meeting with an overview of the province’s financial situation, highlighting the $852-million deficit in the process.
“What we want to focus on is a more efficient way of delivering our programs and services that are important to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians,” Mitchelmore told the audience.
The subsequent discussion was structured around two subjects. Mitchelmore first opened the floor to ideas for how to cut costs for the provincial government.
Secondly, he asked attendees what programs and services should not be subject to spending reductions.
Some of the important topics brought up are discussed below.
Local service district and unincorporated area services
Anchor Point Mayor Gerry Gros asked whether local service districts (LSDs) and unincorporated areas (UIAs) would continue to receive services from the province “for free,” while municipalities have to pay.
Anchor Point is one of three municipalities in the Straits area along with Flower’s Cove and Bird Cove.
All the other towns in the area are either UIAs or LSDs.
Mitchelmore pointed out that if LSDs and UIAs were incorporated, they would receive municipal operating grants, as does Anchor Point.
“Some municipalities are getting over $100,000 in municipal operating grants here in the district,” said Mitchelmore. “They also avail of municipal capital work projects as low as 90/10 (10 per cent cost for municipalities), so the provincial government provides significant off-setting costs to municipalities for infrastructure and capital versus some of the unincorporated or LSDs that wouldn’t avail of that service.”
But Gros quickly shot back.
“I’ll tell you the same thing I told previous ministers of municipal affairs: maintain our roads, pave our roads, do our snow moving for nothing and keep your operating grant,” he said.
Mitchelmore pointed out that many LSDs and UIAs have poor road conditions.
Regionalization and amalgamation
Mitchelmore then shifted the conversation towards regionalization and said municipalities need to look at more ways to share regional services.
The subject of regionalization warranted perhaps the lengthiest conversations through the two-hour session.
Gros pointed out that about 15 years ago when the subject was broached, people expressed concerns that under a regional government, current municipalities like Flower’s Cove would get priority over the present-day LSDs and UIAs.
But he believes it would help benefit those communities.
“Well folks, you’re sending your kids to school in Flower’s Cove, you’re going to the health clinic in Flower’s Cove, everything is in Flower’s Cove,” he said. “If we had a regional government here, we could spread some of those services out.”
Green Island Brook native Henry Hughes suggested that regionalization wouldn’t happen unless leaders of the communities step up and make it happen.
He believes towns in the Straits, from Eddies Cove to Anchor Point, are missing out on money that would come their way if they were under one municipality.
Both Mitchelmore and Gros mentioned that geography is an issue.
Gros pointed out that they’re not allowed to vary mil rates in a single municipality. This would be an issue for regionalization or amalgamation in the Straits region.
In that situation, every municipality shouldn’t have to pay the same mil rate for different services.
For instance, a community that doesn’t get a service would only pay three mils, while Anchor Point would pay 9.5 mils, until they receive the service, Gros suggests.
Questions also abounded about the health care system. One individual asked about consolidation of Labrador-Grenfell Health from Grenfell Regional Services and Health Labrador Corporation and the excessive paperwork involved.
Gros asked when all the health authorities would be using the same software, and St. Lunaire-Griquet mayor Dale Colbourne suggested shots for shingles for seniors should be given out for free.
Colbourne also felt that flu shots should be available at drug stores.
To Colbourne’s suggestions, Mitchelmore pointed out this may increase health care costs for the province.
“There would have to be savings somewhere else if we increase health care costs,” he said.
Gros also wondered whether something could be done to reduce travel expenses for government workers.
“I travel around the province and I see government vehicles travelling with one person in them, more than likely three or four vehicles all going the same direction with one person in them. Can there be some kind of coordination where different departments can travel together?” he asked.
Mitchelmore called the suggestion a “great idea” and said he tries to implement that within his office as much as possible.
“We always take the approach that if you look after the pennies, the dollars take care of themselves,” he said.
He added they could look at whether they can do meetings by telephone or Skype in certain instances, to reduce travel and save money.
Resettlement was also discussed. One man in attendance suggested there are islands on the province with “nobody” living on them that have ferry service.
Resettling these communities could save money since the province would no longer have to subsidize ferry services, he suggested.
However, Mitchelmore replied that he doesn’t think there’ll come a point where resettlement is forced upon communities by the provincial government.
“It has to be a decision of the community,” he said.
Flower’s Cove Mayor Keith Billard had multiple suggestions to reduce expenditures.
He feels the timeframe to evaluate vacant, provincially owned buildings is too long and costing the taxpayers money.
To speed up the process, he suggested the evaluations should be made before the property becomes vacant. And the properties should either be put on the market or immediately turned over to incorporated communities who can put it to use.
“(Incorporated communities) can use it for a youth centre, can use it for low-income housing, you can use it for that kind of stuff,” said Billard.
Mitchelmore called it an “excellent idea” and cited examples of this being done in his district.
Cost share ratios
Billard also called the cost share ratios for capital works projects “outrageous.” He has spoken out about this issue frequently over the past year.
In 2017, the municipal shares for various project categories increased.
As it stands, the ratios for towns with a population of less than 3,000 for Capital Works projects are: 90 per cent provincial share, 10 per cent municipal share for water, waste water and disaster mitigation; 80 per cent provincial share, 20 per cent municipal share for fire fighting vehicles and equipment; 60 per cent provincial share, 40 per cent municipal share for recreational projects, buildings and fire halls; and 50 per cent each for roads and other funding requests.
Billard proposed ratios be changed to a 45-45-10 per cent ratio, involving the federal government as well, to mitigate provincial and municipal expenditures.
In this scenario, the federal and provincial government would each contribute 45 per cent to a given capital works project, while the municipality would contribute 10 per cent.
Mitchelmore responded that the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment, under Minister Eddie Joyce, were committed to having cost-share ratios that would motivate small municipalities to prioritize improving water above other infrastructure projects.
He added it’s yet to be determined if ratios will change in the future.
The meeting concluded with Mitchelmore encouraged the public to reach out to his office or to contact the Budget 2018 email address at firstname.lastname@example.org if they had anything they wished to add.