Sask. RMs deliver wish list to province

The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities already had its financial wish list in front of the province before last week’s revelation that the government will run a deficit this year and next.

But premier Brad Wall, speaking to urban municipalities, also said the province is committed to the revenue sharing formula of one percentage point of provincial sales tax revenue for all municipalities.

Because that amount is based on data from two years prior, as reported in public accounts, municipalities will see at least $6 million more than the $265 million they got this fiscal year. Rural municipalities got about $75 million of that.

SARM president Ray Orb said that is good news.

“That makes us happy,” he said. “On the downside, next year it might go down.”

Wall said the deficit for the current 2015-16 fiscal year would be modest. A third-quarter financial update is due soon.

But he also said the only alternative to a deficit for 2016-17 is increased taxes. He described deficits as “against the DNA” of the Saskatchewan Party but said hiking taxes for people struggling against the economic downturn due to low oil prices is equally distasteful.

The government has already cut spending after the disastrous forest fires in the north and oil prices combined for a big hit on the budget.

Heading soon into a formal campaign before the April 4 vote, Wall said a re-elected Sask. Party government would balance the books for 2017-18. A budget is normally presented in March but is not expected before the election.

Meanwhile, organizations like SARM have made their requests.

One of the big ones is restored funding for the Municipal Roads for the Economy Program. Funding had been $25 million per year. SARM wants that, and a two-year commitment.

“They cut it back to $16 million and then they whittled another $1.2 million off that, so we hope we can get back to the $25 million again,” Orb said.

MREP funds roads and bridges that face heavy traffic from industry such as energy and agriculture.

“It’s going to be a tough budget, there’s no doubt about that, but at the same time we’re still hoping that the government commits to that because that’s pretty much all the RMs get for infrastructure funding besides the gas tax fund,” Orb said.

He said SARM is concerned if the government cuts the program much more then municipalities won’t use it.

“They might just end up building roads on their own and we want them to be able to use programs like that,” he said. “Those roads are engineered, and inspected, and very safe to drive on. They have to pass the eligibility (for MREP).”

SARM also wants an increase in the Provincial Rat Eradication Program to $1.5 million and two-year funding to encourage more participation by municipalities.

Rat numbers are down and last year the province reached the lowest infestation rate ever, at 3.95 percent. More than 90 percent of RMs participate but Orb said extra money would likely mean full participation, and that’s the program goal.

SARM’s annual conference is set for March in Regina, which will be during the provincial campaign. Typically, the agenda includes speeches and a bearpit session with the cabinet, but because of the campaign that won’t happen this year.

Orb said Wall and NDP leader Cam Broten have both been invited to deliver non-campaign speeches and organizers are trying to secure federal speakers, including agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay.

Contact karen.briere@producer.com

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