Rural mayors get chance to lay into province on pot plans, transit and health-care changes
Association of Manitoba Municipalities meeting offers mayors chance to grill province in 'bear pit session'
Mayors from across the province are in Brandon this week where municipal leaders are expected to grill Manitoba government officials over changes to transit funding, the closure of rural emergency medical stations and how much responsibility municipalities have been saddled with in the sale of pot, among other issues.
The meeting comes less than a week after the Pallister government delivered its 2017-18 throne speech in Winnipeg, which focused on streamlining the civil service and continuing to transform health-care across Manitoba.
It also promised to identify areas of "overlap and duplication" between provincial and municipal services, including the delivery of road maintenance, water and drainage, snow removal and more.
Reeves, councillors and mayors will get a chance to take on provincial ministers Tuesday morning in a "bear pit session" ministerial forum following presentations on changes to rural EMS.
Members of the Official Opposition, Manitoba Liberal Party and provincial officials will also be at the meeting.
Grandview EMS closure
The continued changes to health-care include the planned consolidation of rural ambulance services. The province announced in June it plans to shutter emergency medical stations (EMS) in 18 communities to better co-ordinate services.
Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew attended a meeting in Grandview this past weekend where community members, and residents from nearby Tootinaowaziibeeng First Nation (Valley River), echoed concerns raised in August over the looming loss of the local emergency medical station.
"It was great to see the two communities joining hands and standing up together, what's unfortunate is the circumstance in which they are united, and that is to protest of the planned closure of the ambulance station," Kinew said Monday during question period at the legislature.
Kinew said members of the communities, both of which are about 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, fear shuttering the station will sever a valuable service and result in cuts to front-line health-care jobs in the area.
"It's a reminder that health-care is the heart of any community and its strength directly affects the success of the families who live there," Kinew said, asking the province to reverse its decision to close the Grandview station.
Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the decision was made based on recommendations that came out of an ambulance services review ordered by the previous NDP government — recommendations then-health minister Theresa Oswald supported.
"[Oswald] said that the recommendations would lead to a more co-ordinated and more responsive era for EMS in our province," Goertzen said.
Kinew said residents in Grandview dispute the notion that the community EMS station has suffered from low response times or low call volumes.
Kinew said locals conducted their own review of EMS response times and found that the Grandview EMS workers "responded to more calls in the last six months than 62 per cent of the other stations in the Prairie Mountain Health region."
"And then they also further discovered that the response time is faster than the average response time in every category except for one, where they are only 11 seconds slower," Kinew said.
"When we take into account that there's going to be closures across the Westman and Parkland regions — people of Boissevain, Oak Lake, Swan Lake — if the facts are in dispute about Grandview, how can they be sure that the ambulance station closures in their communities are rational?"
Goertzen said concerns over EMS in western Manitoba have been on the rise in recent years as call volume has risen but response times have lagged. That's one reason why the province committed to hiring 28 more full-time rural paramedics in 2016, Goertzen said.
Transit funding cuts
Kinew also criticized the province for backing out of its 50-50 funding deal with Winnipeg Transit.
The province announced earlier in 2017 it will no longer cover half of Winnipeg Transit's costs that aren't covered by bus fares. Instead, it has implemented a "basket funding approach" that doesn't earmark provincial funds for transit, but rather sends the transfer in a lump sum and lets the city allocate it accordingly, Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler said Monday in question period.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman announced last week that transit fares will increase by 25 cents and 23 routes could be cut or reduced by early next year, blaming the funding change.
Transit users have criticized the province and city over the changes; poverty advocates have blamed both governments for the fare increases — the highest since 2008 — and say they will hurt low-income and marginalized communities the most.
But Eichler pushed back, saying Winnipeg ranks third-highest in provincial funding across Canada and the city can decide how to spend its allocation.
"The city can invest in measures as they see are their priorities," Eichler said.
Kinew said apart from the societal impact transit fare hikes will have, there are good environmental reasons to focus on growing bus ridership in the city because it would get more drivers off the road, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Kinew added the 50-50 agreement was a stable source of funding municipalities had come to rely upon, the absence of which places an unfair financial burden on small communities.
Eichler said the government is committed to giving municipalities a "fair say" on provincial funding transfers at the Association of Manitoba Municipalities in Brandon Tuesday.
Along with changes to EMS and transit funding, officials will go over the provincial retail pot approach — a "hybrid" private-public sales model that lets municipalities decide whether to allow weed to be sold in their communities — and the "Made-in-Manitoba" climate change and carbon tax plan, among other hot-button issues.
With files from Sean Kavanagh