Millions in federal relief for N.B. municipalities being held up by the province
Higgs government demanding paperwork from local governments
A national financial rescue package for Canadian municipalities hurt by the pandemic has been rushed out to most communities in the country — but not in New Brunswick.
The province is hanging on to the federal cash until local governments detail their losses.
"To access this ... funding, local governments are required to submit a resolution of council which clearly outlines the net impact of COVID-19 in 2020," said a letter sent to mayors earlier this month by local government minister Daniel Allain.
"Payments will be processed once resolutions of council have been received and reviewed for compliance," the letter states. "The deadline to submit information is December 31, 2020."
New Brunswick was allotted $41.1 million by Ottawa to give to local governments as its share of a $2-billion national rescue package announced in July.
Ottawa provided the relief money on a per-capita basis and most provinces opted to distribute it without waiting on the detailed accounting New Brunswick is requiring.
Canada's largest cities, including Toronto and Vancouver, have been already told what they're getting, as have thousands of medium, small and even tiny communities from one end of the country to the other.
Every New Brunswick municipality in the dark
Tilt Cove in Newfoundland and Labrador, Greig Lake in Saskatchewan and Betula Beach in Alberta, each of them home to fewer than 20 people, have all been notified of their federal relief amounts.
Meanwhile, every New Brunswick municipality remains in the dark.
Edmundston Mayor Cyrille Simard said he has no idea how much his community is getting, or when it's getting it.
"I really don't know ... at this stage," Simard said in a message Wednesday.
In Alberta, more than 300 eligible communities were told 10 weeks ago that the province's entire $233.2-million share of the federal funding would be paid out in roughly equal amounts of $54 per person per community.
For Grand Prairie, which is slightly larger than Saint John and slightly smaller than Moncton, that meant $3.7 million in federal relief money. Cold Lake, which has a population halfway between that of Bathurst's and Edmundston's, is receiving $818,000.
The Alberta government is also adding to those amounts with matching provincial funding.
As in New Brunswick, paperwork accounting for COVID-19 losses has to be completed by communities in Alberta, but not until next year and only to a minimal standard
"We will not require detailed proof of expenses incurred or revenue lost," state the Alberta rules that govern the funding.
"No applications are required. Our goal is to ensure municipalities are able to use funding to offset fiscal challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, without necessary red tape. We recognize that not all municipalities had the resources and capacity to accurately track pandemic-related fiscal impacts as they were occurring."
Next door in Saskatchewan, 700 cities, towns, villages, hamlets and other community structures were informed on Sept. 9 of their individual shares of the $62.3 million given to that province for federal municipal relief.
All received identical amounts of just over $59 per person per community.
Other communities minimized paperwork, expedited relief
Lori Carr, Saskatchewan's government relations minister at the time, said it was important for communities to get the money as soon as possible to deal with problems the pandemic was causing.
"Quickly and efficiently, the amounts will start to be distributed immediately so municipal leaders can funnel dollars to areas of highest local priority," Carr said during the Sept. 9 announcement.
British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario have also announced amounts going to municipalities in those provinces, while in eastern Canada, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador have also divided up the federal money and disclosed amounts to every local government.
In St. John's, the municipalities minister Derek Bennett said the province is minimizing paperwork for its nearly 300 communities and adopting the same per-person method of distributing federal municipal relief used in western Canada.
"We know municipalities ... have been eagerly anticipating the amount of funding that each municipality will receive," said Bennett in a statement.
"No applications are required."
Each community in Newfoundland and Labrador is receiving the same $59 per person as Saskatchewan communities, including $6.4 million for St. John's, $1.2 million for Corner Brook and $833,000 for Grand Falls Windsor.
New Brunswick's 104 eligible communities are unlikely to be treated in a similar, predictable and equal way.
Allain has indicated there will be an individual decision made by the province for each community, with some getting more and some less than a per-capita distribution would deliver.
He instructed mayors to provide a detailed accounting of their increased COVID-19 costs and to combine that with their decreased revenues. They are also required to list "operational savings" achieved as they tried to rescue their budgets and deduct that amount from the first two to come up with a "net COVID-19 impact."
That raises the possibility that municipalities who cut the most services to save money during the pandemic could show lower net budget impacts from COVID and receive reduced amounts of relief.
That happened last month when the province took $1.6 million out of the federal municipal relief money to apply it to transit relief.
'We shouldn't be penalized' for being prudent: Darling
Saint John cut more of its transit service during the early days of the pandemic than Moncton and Fredericton did, and on paper showed a lower "net" financial deficit from COVID, even though its service was harmed the most..
As a result, the province awarded Saint John the least amount of transit relief – $400,000, compared to $500,000 for Moncton and $670,000 for Fredericton
Saint John finance officials have been working for the last three weeks on the larger application for federal municipal relief money and Mayor Don Darling does not want to see communities who took dramatic action to contain their deficits get the least relief.
"We should not be penalized for being fiscally prudent," said Darling in a message to CBC News on Tuesday.
Allain's office did not respond to a request for an interview about his department's handling of federal assistance meant for municipalities or whether the "net impact" measurement being used to disperse money will penalize some communities.
Department spokesman Jean Bertin said in an email that communities will know how much of the federal money they are getting when they fill out their paperwork and have it inspected by department officials.
"The sooner local governments get their resolutions of council into the department, the sooner they will be reimbursed," he wrote.