'Stick to our lane': Yellowknife's mayor focuses on essentials, leaves health orders to territory

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues around the world, Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty is focusing on the basics, making sure water, sewage, and other services continue. She's leaving health decisions to officials with the territorial government.

City handles the basics, leaves big health and economic questions to N.W.T., federal governments

Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty says the city is focusing on delivering essential services amid COVID-19, instead of doubling up the work of health officials with the territory. (CBC Photo)

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty is focusing on the basics — like getting clean water to residents, making sure the sewage system works and leaving economic and health questions to the Northwest Territories government.

"I do want us to stick to our lane," she said. "If we start jumping in, helping [the territorial government] on their area, where they're supposed to be focused, who's going to be doing our job?"

Alty is midway through her first term as the mayor of Yellowknife and, like countless officials across the country, is taking on an unprecedented global health crisis. 

"It's definitely been a challenging month," she said. "We're working through all the different service levels, making sure we provide those essential services."  

Though the spread of COVID-19 remains limited in the Northwest Territories, health officials have implemented strict orders to make sure it stays that way. For Alty, she said the best thing she can do for her community is let them make those decisions and follow through on them. 

Recreation facilities, city parks and nearly all but the most essential services are closed or have been moved online, following recommendations and orders from Dr. Kami Kandola, the territory's chief public health officer. 

So far, communications between Alty's staff and territorial officials is good, even if they're first hearing about some changes in the media instead of directly from the government, Alty said.

Little room for relief from the city 

The pandemic has upended local economies around the world, and Yellowknife is no exception. While Alty understands that business owners are looking for help, she says there isn't much the city government can do.

Municipal spending is already tight, and by law cannot run consecutive deficits, so businesses will likely have to look to federal and territorial programs for relief, she said. 

"If we go into the red this year, we have to get back into the black by next year," Alty said. "There's not as much wiggle room." 

But she did say the city is re-examining its 2020 budget, trying to project where things stand with the lost money or extra expenses that have come with what so far has been essentially a month-long shutdown.

Once that's done, city council can re-evaluate and determine whether relief programs make sense, though Alty cautions that could lead to tax hikes or cuts elsewhere. 

"It's never 'the city' that pays, it's the tax dollars that we gather. So saying, 'Open this up for free' or 'Waive these user charges' is really saying, 'Please use our tax dollars on this,'" she said. "It's a lot that the council will have to consider."   

City officers not enforcing health orders 

Over the past week, the territorial government has started its enforcement task force, which will investigate complaints about people breaking health orders. 

Despite some rumours to the contrary, the city's bylaw officers will not be doing this work. They're not trained for that and municipal bylaw officers do not have the authority to enforce a territorial order at this point.


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