Redford acknowledges ‘municipalities will feel pain’ from budget cuts

By Karen Kleiss, Edmonton Journal March 20, 2013

EDMONTON – Premier Alison Redford and her ministers on Wednesday defended the impact that recent budget cuts will have on rural Alberta, including the decision to eliminate grants for bridges and resource roads.

At a meeting of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties, Redford focused on stable funding for the Municipal Sustainability Initiative but acknowledged that other rural programs were cut.

“Under budget 2013, MSI funding will remain stable at $896 million. I know that there were expectations that MSI funding would rise, but the circumstances just didn’t leave us room to do that,” Redford said.

“Government is maintaining its commitment to municipalities by shielding the money that you count on … from the reductions that we’ve had to make elsewhere.”

She acknowledged the government cut other grant programs, saying no area was immune from budget pressures.

“I understand that municipalities will feel pain,” Redford said.

Redford was referring in part to the government’s decision to cut funding to the Strategic Transportation Infrastructure Program grants, known as STIP, which prompted multiple questions during a session with ministers Wednesday.

Since April 2011, the program has funded construction and repair of local bridges, community airports, resource roads and local municipal initiatives like the City Special Transport Grants.

In 2011-12, the province spent $88 million on the program, in 2012-13, the government spent roughly $119 million. In the 2013-14 fiscal year, funding drops to zero.

AAMDC president Bob Barss said rural municipalities can probably manage airports and resource roads without provincial help, but fixing local bridges is expensive and cancellation of the STIP program may force them to close roads or raise taxes.

“It was a pretty big hit to rural Alberta,” Barss said. “I think the feeling was that maybe rural Alberta took more of a hit than other parts.”

He said AAMDC members understand that cuts were necessary, but feel the cuts to STIP grants combined with cuts to agriculture programs means rural Albertans have shouldered the brunt of the province’s fiscal burden than others.

On the positive side, Barss said the province left the STIP line in the budget, a recognition that the funding is necessary and may return in future years. He also said the province will continue to fund bridge inspections.

Transportation Minister Ric McIver was unapologetic.

“I don’t expect people in this room or municipalities to be happy,” McIver said. “Even though I don’t expect you to be happy with the STIP grant being zero-funded, we didn’t do it without thought.”

McIver said the STIP grants were project-based and that the government decided it would be better to “unfund” that program rather than the Basic Municipal Transportation Grant, which is a formula-based grant given to all municipalities based on population.

McIver said municipalities will have to use money from the Municipal Sustainability Initiative or the Basic Municipal Transport Grant to fund key bridge work and other priority areas.

“That’s part of the tough decisions we have to make to live within our means,” McIver said.

Redford also reiterated there would be no additional provincial funding for the proposed Edmonton arena.

Speaking to reporters after her speech, she said she remains hopeful that provincial school boards will accept the tentative deal the province reached with teachers Friday.

The four-year deal covers approximately 40,000 teachers and settles issues around teachers’ salaries and workload. It also freezes teacher salaries for three years.

The Edmonton public school board on Tuesday rejected the agreement, and the Calgary Board of Education rejected it Wednesday.

Asked if a major school board’s refusal to back the deal would kill it, Redford said: “I don’t think so. We have the opportunity to negotiate with teachers at a provincial level and then to have teachers who are employed by their local school boards to accept the terms of that deal.

“It’s not an either-or. It’s disappointing, it certainly would be, but we’re still speculating right now,” Redford said.

Redford told reporters she would miss question period Wednesday because he has lost hearing in her right ear and had an appointment with a specialist, for which she waited more than a year.

She missed a historic day in Alberta’s legislature.

Red Deer North MLA Mary Anne Jablonski, deputy chair of committees, stood in Wednesday for Speaker Gene Zwozdesky, making her the first woman in Alberta history to do so.

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