CRITICS are accusing the province of pressuring municipal governments to lay off staff, due to financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. But the minister who sent a letter listing ways to cut staffing costs to those governments said none of her statements were prescriptive.
On April 15, Manitoba Municipal Relations Minister Rochelle Squires sent a letter to municipalities that noted ideas to cope with the pandemic’s financial fallout, which had been earlier discussed with union leaders.
"We shared our fiscal position and options for adjusting our workforce through layoffs, voluntary reduced workweeks, work-sharing, management trims and voluntary wage reductions… I am strongly urging you to look to examples being set and continue to deliver the best value for money for your ratepayers by taking new measures to manage your budgets," wrote Squires.
The Manitoba NDP quickly condemned the letter as "pushing municipalities" to lay off workers.
"Their austerity agenda to cut people’s wages and jobs is only going to make the current recession worse … We shouldn’t take a hatchet to those jobs right now," said NDP leader Wab Kinew.
The president of the City of Winnipeg’s largest union said he also expects reduced workweeks, layoffs and pay cuts would reduce the amount of money spent at local businesses.
Gord Delbridge, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 500, accused the province of interfering in other governments’ business.
"The province can manage as poorly as they so choose but that doesn’t mean that they should impose that same method on other levels of government," said Delbridge.
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman stressed the letter is not the same as legislation and leaves the city free to make its own financial decisions.
"The province hasn’t indicated that there’s anything mandated… We’ll make adjustments as we deem appropriate," said Bowman.
The mayor noted Winnipeg already balances its operating budget each year.
"I don’t take offence to anybody saying ‘tighten your belt.’ We’re doing that and we’ve actually been leading on it," said Bowman.
Ralph Groening, president of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, said many other local leaders have also taken steps to cut costs.
Groening said he sees the province’s letter as a call for financial unity, though he’d still like to see provincial operating grants to municipalities, which have been frozen at 2016 levels, increase.
"We are doing with less and we’ve done with less for the last four years," he said.
Squires said some are misinterpreting its intent and accused the NDP of trying to "create panic during a pandemic."
She said her government simply wants to work with municipalities to address the fallout from COVID-19.
"We are all facing unprecedented financial and fiscal pressures and… we need to look for solutions. There is nothing prescriptive in this letter," she said.
When asked if the province will provide more funding to address municipal pandemic costs, the minister stressed the province itself is facing massive new expenses.
Premier Brian Pallister has estimated the pandemic could cost Manitoba $5 billion through added expenses and lost revenue this year.
Squires also rejected the claim the province is interfering in the domain of municipal governments.
"I would say that we respect the democracy of mature, responsible, municipally elected government," she said.
Earlier this week, the province revealed it’s asking many non-frontline public-sector workers to agree to a reduced workweek.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.
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