N.W.T. pitches smaller, more realistic $328M capital budget 

The N.W.T. can’t spend money fast enough on existing capital projects, so it’s revising how it’s budgeting them and in some cases pushing timelines back on when they will be completed. 

Smallest capital budget since 2018-19

N.W.T. Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek outlines her department’s proposed 2023-24 capital budget Tuesday in Yellowknife.  (John Van Dusen/CBC News)

The N.W.T. can't spend money fast enough on existing capital projects, so it's revising how it's budgeting them and in some cases pushing timelines back on when they will be completed. 

A proposed $328-million 2023-24 capital budget was tabled in the legislature Tuesday. 

The territory's capital budgets have steadily climbed in recent years, but this one reverses course and is more than a third smaller than the previous year's budget of $502 million. 

There are no new big-ticket items proposed and no changes to annual allocations for small capital projects like annual highway chipseal work.

Instead, the proposed budget takes into account what the government and industry in the territory is actually capable of delivering, said Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek. 

"It's still large, but it is one that is more realistic so that when you get excited about it, there's more transparency as to what we actually have on the list," she said during a media briefing alongside her colleagues from the finance department before the budget's tabling.

New approach

They described what they say is a new approach to developing the capital budget.

It involved asking departments to review previously approved projects and provide updated cost estimates and timelines. 

In some cases, the completion dates for projects like the Fort Providence Transmission Line, which would connect the community to the Taltson hydroelectric transmission system, have been pushed back. 

The transmission line was originally expected to be finished by 2022-23. Now, it's expected to be connected by 2024-25.

An environmental assessment for the Slave Geological Province All Weather Highway, originally scheduled to be done by 2023-24, is now expected to be done by 2027-28.

In other cases, some projects that were expected to have been completed by now — like long-term care facilities in Hay River and Inuvik — have revised end dates.

The long-term care facility in Hay River is expected to be done by now 2027-28, while the facility in Inuvik has been moved back to the planning stage. 

"The projects aren't disappearing," Wawzonek said. "The fact of the matter, though, is if you leave it on the capital list and you say 'here, it's here,' that doesn't get it any closer to completion."

Hundreds of millions of dollars carried over

Historically, the finance department says 40 to 45 per cent of the territory's capital budget has gone unspent and is carried over.

The finance department says over the past ten years, the territory has spent on average about $226 million a year on capital projects — far less than what the territory has budgeted in recent years.

Part of the reason is where the money is coming from. Around 75 per cent of capital projects are funded through the federal government. 

In prior budgets, "much of the capital plan was kind of driven by our ability to get that federal funding," said William MacKay, the territory's deputy minister of finance. 

MacKay said the territory is now working with the federal government to extend the timelines on when that money can be spent.

He said it is an issue faced by every jurisdiction in the country — the money is there, but the workforce to get it done isn't.

It's not a new challenge, Wawzonek said, but complicating matters is that as southern economies pick up, there are fewer companies willing to come north to do the work, says Terence Courtoreille, the assistant deputy minister of finance.

"It's difficult to build everything all in the same year," Courtoreille said.

On top of that, supply chain challenges and the rising costs of lumber, steel and fuel are pushing back timelines, Courtoreille said.

"When we are planning more than what we can do, we're signalling that we're frankly not doing very good planning in my view," Wawzonek said.

"If we can show that what we're planning is going to get delivered upon, I actually think that's a better way to go about it."


John Van Dusen is a journalist with CBC North based in Yellowknife. Find him on Twitter @jvdCBC.