Toughest year for Saskatchewan, premier tells municipal leaders

It’s been a tough year, with lots of tough decisions. But we will get back to normal again.

Those were some of the key messages Premier Scott Moe told delegates of the Municipalities of Saskatchewan, formerly Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association, on February 8 in a virtual convention.

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“This been one of the toughest years for us, to Saskatchewan people, I would say this is one of the toughest years the people of this province have ever experienced,” Moe said.

He noted that, like virtually every other jurisdiction in the world, Saskatchewan had to shut down sizable portions of its economy to contain the spread of COVID-19. “It was one of the toughest decisions ever faced (by) government, and one of the toughest decisions I was involved with as premier. But it had to be done, at least temporarily, to protect us,” Moe said.

It was necessary to protect the health care system and its workers.

Moe said, “The economy suffered both a supply and demand shock, and suffered them at the same time, a slowdown unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. And governments at every level had no choice but to take immediate action to support businesses, to support workers, to support families, and communities. We had to go in big. There was no time for half measures.”

Reflecting on some of the choices made, when it came to shutting down or re-opening the economy, Moe said COVID-19 numbers have stabilized and are moving in the right direction.

He said, “Our government has worked hard to find the right balance between keeping Saskatchewan people safe, and keeping the Saskatchewan economy as open as possible and as many people at their jobs is possible in this province.

“Yes, we've heard from some people. We've heard from mayors and councillors who want us to tighten things up. We've heard from others that want us to open things. This debate mirrors the broader discussion that we're having in Saskatchewan, we're having across this nation and having south of the border. Today, in our province, much of our economy is open, and it is operating and operating safely. We've managed to keep more businesses open than any other jurisdiction in Canada, and for the most part, our businesses have acted very, very responsibly and I thank them for that. They've done the right thing, they've adapted to the health protocols that are in place, and they've been best to ensure that their customers and their staff are safe and have kept as many people working as possible, earning a paycheck.

“And a lot of these employees, they simply don't have the option of working from home. It's easy for some, to just stand up and say, ‘We need to lock everything down,’ when they have the opportunity to work from home. The fact of the matter is thousands of people in Saskatchewan do not have that opportunity. Many of them, for example, are essential workers, making sure that all of us have the essentials that we need for life to continue.”

He went on, “We owe these folks so much. And at the very least, we owe them an opportunity to continue to earn a living. Ladies and gentlemen, let me say this: our government will never discount and we will never diminish the danger of the COVID-19 virus.”

He said that the vast majority of people have been following public health guidelines, and they work. But a small minority have not been, and enforcement has been beefed up.

“The reality is this: no matter how severe lockdowns and public health measures are; they are not going to end this pandemic. They're simply a stopgap measure to help us get to the finish line. Life will get back to normal, when we achieve that finish line, which is wide scale vaccination.”

Financial response

Moe said the Saskatchewan government has invested $4.4 billion either directly or indirectly in response to the pandemic and economic recovery support. Municipalities have also made their own significant investments.

Moe pointed out that one of the immediate responses was to release revenue sharing funds as one lump sum instead of traditional installments, an idea that came from then-Government Relations Minister Lori Carr. Last June, “$278 million went out the door, no strings attached,” Moe said, noting it had increased by $27 million from the previous year.

He did caution the municipal leaders that funding from the provincial sales tax, which is shared with municipalities, will be impacted by the economic impact of the pandemic. “Our revenue sharing in the coming fiscal year is going to be down slightly because of a weather PST that the province received two years ago. That’s the two-year lag. And there may be another drop because of the slowdown as a result of COVID-19,” he said.

“In years when the PST revenue is down, both the province, and the municipalities, yes, will feel that impact together. The decrease in revenue in the coming year, and the year after that, will be far more than offset by the $150 million in Municipal Economic Enhancement Program (MEEP) as well as the $70 million in Safe Restart, that was negotiated between the provincial premiers and the federal government, and this province, was flowed through directly to the municipalities so that you could utilize those funds.”

Moe announced a $3 million increase to the Urban Highway Connector Program (UHCP), bringing it to $10 million over two years.

UHCP is capital funding created in 2008 to provide stable funding and service levels on highways within city limits that connect to the provincial networks. The program provides financial assistance to urban municipalities for the maintenance, operation and rehabilitation of these roadways.

Moe said the planned $5.5 billion infrastructure capital plan was increased by an additional $2 billion of infrastructure stimulus, totalling $7.5 billion over the next two years. Of that, $320 million went directly to community municipal infrastructure, including the $150 for MEEP. They were “shovel ready” projects done quickly, and chosen by the communities.

He cited examples of Moosomin spending nearly $400,000 for sewer and water lines, paving and curbs. “That’s good, basic infrastructure,” Moe said. Moose Jaw received $5 million.

Optimism

“There are many reasons for us to be optimistic about what lies ahead, for each of us, and for all of us.” Moe said Saskatchewan is poised to “capitalize on a recovering world,” and poised for rapid growth.

“We’ve been down this last few months. It certainly hasn’t been easy, for any of us. But you know what? We aren’t going to be down for much longer. There will be a time when we’re going to get together again,” he concluded. “We’ll get back to normal again.”

NDP response

New Democratic Leader Ryan Meili, in a response posted to Facebook, said, “Doctors, nurses and health care workers who have called for greater public health measures aren’t working from home. That’s the point, Premier Moe, they’re on the front-lines dealing with the impact of your decisions. They deserve our respect, not dismissive sound-bites.”