Funding freeze may end, new policing model possible, Manitoba municipalities told

Manitoba cabinet ministers have signalled a possible end to the freeze on municipal operating funding and pledged to explore a policing model that gives lower-risk policing duties to staff with different levels of training.

Fourteen members of Heather Stefanson’s cabinet took questions for more than an hour Tuesday from elected officials at the Association of Manitoba Municipalities fall convention in Winnipeg. The questions covered a range of subjects, from funding to escalating crime and retaining health-care workers.

Municipal Relations Minister Eileen Clarke told delegates the question she’s heard more than any other in discussions with municipal officials regards financial support. 

The Progressive Conservative government has offered no-strings-attached funding, which municipalities have appreciated, since coming into power in 2016, but the amount of money has stayed the same from the beginning. 

While the province has supplemented that funding with support for specific projects ranging from infrastructure to pandemic measures, municipalities have long complained the grant funding doesn’t cut it. 

“I did make a commitment to [AMM] president [Kam] Blight in the spring that I would make it a priority to work on a funding model that would be more acceptable to the municipalities and perhaps meet some of the additional demands,” said Clarke, who took over the municipal relations portfolio in January.

‘Working on’ addressing funding concerns

The minister added she will be presenting her proposal to the province’s Treasury Board in the coming days. 

She wouldn’t divulge what she wishes next year’s funding commitment to be, but she seemed to suggest such an idea would be appreciated. 

“We are working on it and hopefully when the budget comes out in 2023, there will be news to follow.”

Later in the session, new Winkler Mayor Henry Siemens stressed that increased funding is needed badly. He said municipalities such as his are brainstorming how to pay 2023 bills with 2016 levels of funding.

“We’re dealing with a seven-year freeze from our partners and we’re asking — we’re begging — for you to review that and recognize the difficulty that we’re going through trying to make things work when the costs are up everywhere,” Siemens said to applause from his colleagues.

A delegate poses a question to the gathered cabinet ministers from Heather Stefanson’s government at the Association of Manitoba Municipalities convention in Winnipeg on Tuesday. (Warren Kay/CBC)

In response, Clarke said she’s heard the advocacy from municipalities and AMM officials loud and clear.

She later said “the Treasury Board will see that I have a lot of support for the lobbying that I do as well.”

In speeches to the AMM convention in the morning NDP Leader Wab Kinew and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont both said they would end the funding freeze if they became premier following next year’s election.

In another development, the subject of escalating crime was top of mind for a number of municipal officials at the forum. 

Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen expressed his sympathy.

“Your frustration is felt, I think, by many Manitobans. Something’s changed in the last two years. There’s no question about it,” Goertzen said in response to a councillor.

He said the province is looking at tiered policing models and is considering legislation. 

Such a model is gaining favour in other jurisdictions as it focuses police officers on the demanding parts of their job, such as arrests, and leaves other properly trained individuals to handle other responsibilities, such as delivering subpoenas or responding to animal control calls. 

In an interview afterward, Goertzen referred to new Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham’s election pledge to look into putting peace officers on buses as one example of what Manitoba could allow. Provincial legislation is required before that could happen.

“When we look at things like tiered policing, it would allow potentially something like a bus security force to be able to ensure that those who are on the bus both feel safe and are safe. But also in rural Manitoba, there’s other things that are happening on bylaw enforcement” … where RCMP have “a difficult time keeping up with everything,” Goertzen said.

Manitoba Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen says society in general should do a better job encouraging and supporting its police officers. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Asked during the ministerial forum about filling policing vacancies at rural detachments, Goertzen said he’s spoken with a number of police officers who said they’re reluctant to encourage other people to join the profession.

He said it’s been a tough time for policing. Calls to defund the police, or at least reduce their funding, have gained traction in the province and beyond.

“Society has to respect the work that our police officers do, not question everything that they do. Where there are questions, ask them, but to tell them each and every day, ‘We thank you for the role that you’re doing. We know that you have a hard job. You’re running into places that we’re running from, and we thank you for that service,'” Goertzen said.

Also at the ministerial forum, Health Minister Audrey Gordon said the government would consider extending its proposed health-care worker incentives to nurses working less than 70 per cent of full-time hours. The province had considered 70 per cent as the threshold for benefits.

As well, cabinet ministers heard two delegates question the province’s approach of sending the education property tax rebate through the mail, rather than via digital means. It was suggested the province could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in postage.

Finance Minister Cameron Friesen said there’s “no administrative advantage” to sending the payments digitally. 

He said the annual cheques also had the “effect of teaching people that we are still fully funding education. There is some bad messaging out there somehow going that the rebate is a consequence of reductions to education funding,” something Friesen stressed is completely false.