Social development minister quiet on what budget has in store for her department
In January, Shephard has acknowledged a budget cut would make necessary change difficult
Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard isn't tipping her hand yet on whether next week's provincial budget will provide her with new funding to tackle a growing list of challenges.
Shephard has been at the centre of several high-profile issues that critics say would best be addressed by giving her department more money to spend.
But all signs point to a Progressive Conservative budget that will reduce spending, not increase it.
"It's going to be a difficult budget," Finance Minister Ernie Steeves warned earlier this year.
Fight for more funding?
In January, Shephard said she would "fight" for more funding for her department and acknowledged that a cut would compromise her ability to make necessary changes.
"I can't imagine that the department could lose any amount of money without hurting services," she said at the time.
Among the issues Shephard is facing:
- Wage demands for unionized nursing home workers, who say a staff shortage can't be addressed until salaries increase.
- Improvements to child-protection services following two reports that Shephard herself acknowledged would require more funding to implement.
- A growing issue with homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, both of which fall under Social Development's jurisdiction.
But the minister would not say whether she'll be getting more money, less, or the same as this year when Steeves delivers his first budget in the legislature next week.
"You're going to see our budget on Tuesday," she said.
'No room for cutting'
Moncton South Liberal MLA Cathy Rogers, a former minister of social development, said she has heard rumours that $32 million will be slashed from the department's 2019-20 budget.
That would make it impossible to tackle the issue Shephard is confronting, Rogers said.
"There is literally no room for cutting in Social Development. Social Development needs more investment."
Green Leader David Coon said he is expecting cuts because of a PC election promise to cut $125 million per year from the deficit and debt. Meeting that goal would require major cuts, even with a projected $4.5 million surplus this year.
The report by consultant George Savoury into a case of child neglect recommended more training for social workers and filling temporary positions with full-time hires.
Promised to fight
Shephard said in January that Savoury's report "absolutely has budget implications" and said she would "have to fight for what I feel needs to be done for this department, and quite frankly you can be damn sure I'm going to."
On housing, the province is under increasing pressure to help municipalities provide shelter for homeless people.
The Higgs government has yet to say what it will do with federal money it's getting from Ottawa for housing.
And a cut to the provincial department's budget would potentially wipe out the gain from that federal funding.
Union sees 300 vacancies
On Thursday, Shephard disputed the argument by the union representing nursing home workers that it needs a more generous wage increase than other public-sector unions because of staffing shortages.
Sharon Teare, president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, said there are about 300 vacancies among the 4,000 unionized nursing home employees.
An increase in wages "is not the end-all, but it's definitely a start to get [new employees] into the system," she said.
"Twenty years ago, I waited five and a half years to get a full-time jobs. Now there's full-time jobs and people aren't staying. That tells you there's a crisis."
But Shephard said she's "fairly comfortable" with staffing levels and said recruitment difficulties are not unique to nursing homes, which are funded by the province.
"We have an occupation shortage in the province, period, and it's going over almost every sector," she said.
Unionized workers at the nursing homes voted for a strike earlier this month, though the province has managed to block a walkout by obtaining a stay on a labour board ruling that declared they were not essential workers.
Coon has called on Premier Blaine Higgs to put more money on the table to resolve the dispute, and the People's Alliance, which is supporting the PC minority government during confidence votes in the legislature, called for a "fair offer."
Alliance leader Kris Austin said the previous government offer "doesn't come anywhere close to keeping up with the cost of living."
Teare said if Shephard's budget is frozen or cut next week, there are other ways she can find the funding she needs.
"I would hope they would look in their budget to see what it is they could arrange so they could bring to the table what is needed to resolve this crisis," she said.
One idea, adopted by Austin, is to centralize the administration of nursing homes so that one administrator is looking after a set number of beds across several homes.
That would free up money to care for residents, Teare said.
"More administration and management doesn't necessarily meet those needs."