Saskatchewan cries a river over stimulus deadline
A collapsed section of the Trans Canada highway near Maple Creek, Sask., photographed on Sunday, June 20, 2010. (Terry Super / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Wednesday, August 11, 2010 6:37PM EDT
REGINA - Workers were beavering away on improvements to a park in Maple Creek in June when a series of near-biblical storms hit southwestern Saskatchewan, swamping the town and washing out roads.
The park construction, funded in part by $600,000 in federal stimulus money, had to take a back seat when rushing flood waters tore a deep crater through half of the Trans-Canada Highway.
In Dalmeny, a bedroom community north of Saskatoon, crews had been planning to spend $1.5 million in federal money on storm sewers and sewage treatment facilities.
They've been sitting idle for the last three weeks. More rain on an already sopping site is making the land impossible to work.
Those are just two of more than 30 cost-shared infrastructure projects in Saskatchewan that municipal politicians say might not be finished before the federal government abruptly turns off the stimulus tap on March 31, 2011 - as it says it will.
Municipal leaders say the heavy flooding that has plagued parts of the province has slowed construction to a crawl in some places. With the looming deadline, they are calling for assurance from Ottawa that the money won't run out because of Mother Nature's misdeeds.
Federal NDP leader Jack Layton added his voice to the mix Wednesday, backing a special exemption and arguing the deadline unfairly penalizes Saskatchewan.
"The flooding there has made it virtually impossible for some of the projects ... to be completed on time," he told an Ottawa news conference. "You can't do sewer and water projects when there is flooding going on and when roads are closed."
The Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association puts the total value of the 33 projects in jeopardy because of the weather at $36 million, a third of which is federal money. There's an arena upgrade in Cupar, the wetlands lagoon being built in Avonlea and the pool replacement in Vanguard.
"The delays can be extensive," said Laurent Mougeot, the association's chief executive.
If the federal money is no longer available, municipalities would ultimately be left holding the bag.
The issue has been a hot political topic in Saskatchewan for weeks. Saskatoon Conservative MP Brad Trost turned up the amperage when he was quoted in the media as likening municipalities to school kids begging for extra time to do their homework.
The Saskatchewan Party government, which occupies a similar place on the political spectrum as the federal Conservatives, was more measured Wednesday.
Municipal Affairs Minister Darryl Hickie accused Layton of being in "sky-is-falling mode" and suggested that, with a little hard work, many of the 33 projects could be finished before the deadline if the weather holds out.
"Saskatchewan is not in a panic mode whatsoever," he said.
"Saskatchewan is being very optimistic that, with the hard-working crews that are out there now going, in some cases, 24-7, when Mother Nature is in good spirits, we are going to get really close to having those jobs done."
Hickie did concede that both he and Premier Brad Wall have been working the back channels in Ottawa to ensure the federal government knows Saskatchewan's special circumstance. Wall brought the matter up when Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured the flood-damaged Yorkton area last month.
Saskatchewan politicians are not alone in calling for an extension.
Earlier this week, the parliamentary budget officer, Kevin Page, raised concerns that as much as $500 million in funding would lapse because projects wouldn't be finished on time.
Both Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have indicated they are not keen to push the deadline.
In Vancouver earlier this week, Harper didn't rule out extending it, but he also noted that the purpose of the stimulus program was to stimulate the economy during the recession, which ended last fall.
On the same day, Flaherty was more matter-of-fact, saying the program will end by next April.
"What we would like to see the federal government do is acknowledge that there were very unusual circumstances this year with respect to the weather pattern in Saskatchewan and that a lot of public projects have been affected by the extreme and unusual weather conditions," Mougeot said.
"At the end of the day, some of these projects may get back on track, but it would be nice for municipalities ... to know whether or not they still have a partner to share the costs."