Municipalities not immune to COVID-19 impacts

The books don't balance, but they must

As the province's Restart Manitoba campaign unfolds and pandemic restrictions are gradually lifted across the province, the wide-ranging impacts of COVID-19 have not spared Manitoba's municipal sector.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities released a report in April showing that, owing to the pandemic, municipalities nationwide are facing a shortfall of $10-15 billion due to increased expenses and decreased revenues.

article continues below

This is a staggering figure since municipalities and their staff have remained on the front lines to deliver essential services we all depend on.

Manitoba municipalities are facing tremendous financial pressures as they have worked diligently to proactively find efficiencies and cost-saving measures. For instance, some local councils have waived late fees for utility and property tax bills while others have redeployed staff to other jobs and tasks to mitigate the need for layoffs or tax increases. Community recreation centres are also functioning at reduced capacity despite high operating costs and minimal user fees.

The Association of Manitoba Municipalities has appreciated the efforts of the provincial government to keep Manitobans safe. We've also commended the Manitoba government for providing a larger share of municipal operating funding earlier in the year as well as additional investments to support water and waste infrastructure projects. However, we continue to appeal for immediate financial assistance.

Let's be clear, municipalities are not allowed to run deficits - we must balance our budgets every year. Given the surge in expenses and decrease in revenues due to the pandemic, Manitoba communities are naturally struggling. Now is not the time to increase property taxes to help make up for limited revenue; instead, red-tape reduction opportunities should be pursued while other immediate actions and projects can be taken to help improve and rebuild our economy.

That is why the AMM has called on the province to provide additional details regarding various provincial and federal COVID-19 recovery initiatives as well as updates on the status of cost-shared infrastructure investments.

In particular, we continue to urge the provincial government to provide further details and clarity on the status of the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program. To date, provincial-federal negotiations are continuing while municipal shovel-ready projects sit idle, waiting for approvals and the remaining days of our short construction season fade to the approaching winter.

The $19-billion federal-provincial Safe Restart Agreement is certainly welcomed, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has indicated that some of these funds are to be provided to municipalities. How these federal dollars will be shared with Manitoba municipalities is unknown at this time. Although, it is essential that communication channels remain open and municipalities be consulted and included in ongoing provincial-federal discussions.

Additionally, as more Manitobans work from home, businesses expand e-services and schools and universities increase distance learning options, COVID-19 has accelerated the need for reliable internet connectivity across the province. In many areas, broadband internet connectivity is poor or spotty at best, which undermines economic growth and prevents investment.

As the newly created provincial government Department of Central Services was mandated prior to COVID-19 to develop a provincial broadband strategy to expand coverage, efforts on this file should be immediately redoubled to ensure all Manitobans have access to high-quality internet and come out of this pandemic stronger than ever before. The federal government should also expedite the launch of the Universal Broadband Fund, which has been delayed for months.

 

COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for all orders of government to come together to build a more prosperous, more resilient and more connected country. Manitoba municipalities stand ready to help build this future in partnership with our provincial and federal governments as well as all municipalities from coast to coast to coast.

Local communities are the backbone of our province and country, so any recovery plan must include and support all municipalities by providing immediate financial and economic relief.

 

Ralph Groeningis president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities. This op/ed ran earlier in the Winnipeg Free Press

© Virden Empire-Advance