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Lethbridge stakeholders react to Alberta budget

Click to play video 'Initial reactions from Lethbridge as province tightens fiscal belt with new budget' Initial reactions from Lethbridge as province tightens fiscal belt with new budget
WATCH: Premier Jason Kenney’s government released its first budget Thursday, and cuts will be felt by many in Lethbridge. Danica Ferris reports – Oct 24, 2019

Lethbridge-East MLA Nathan Neudorf said he’s very pleased with his government’s newly-tabled budget, despite the fiscal belt tightening that will affect Albertans.

Neudorf believes the plan is a fair one, in light of Alberta’s financial realities.

“To be able to provide a budget that gets us back to balance in four years, with cuts of only 2.8 per cent to bring that to balance, that’s a pretty moderate and very responsible tact to take,” he said.

READ MORE: Alberta Budget 2019: What’s in it for Calgary and Lethbridge?

The Lethbridge-East MLA noted the budget protects current funding for health care and education, but Holy Spirit Catholic School Division Superintendent Chris Smeaton said schools in the area will still feel the pinch.

“When you get a budget that’s the same, really it’s less services,” Smeaton said.

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“We expected that. You’ve got a growing province, we’ve got a growing school division, so if it’s the same number that you got last year, then you know that it’s probably a little bit down in terms of what you can offer.”

Smeaton said his school division will be forced to dip further into its surplus, after already using more than $600,000 to balance its books over the past year.

READ MORE: Alberta budget 2019 includes cuts to cities, civil servants, universities

Post-secondary students in Lethbridge will also be impacted, with the freeze on tuition being lifted.

Increases will be capped at seven per cent per year, to a maximum of 21 per cent over three years.

University of Lethbridge president and vice-chancellor Mike Mahon said that while he’s not quite sure what the tuition increase will look like for students in Lethbridge just yet, he hopes the institution will remain affordable for future students.

“We’re in a position where we are not at the high-end of the scale from a tuition standpoint,”he said.

“That will give us some latitude, at least to look at what’s a reasonable increase from a tuition perspective.”

The University of Lethbridge will see a 3.2 per cent grant decrease in terms of Campus Alberta Grant funding for the 2019-20 fiscal year in the new budget, as well as a suspension to the Infrastructure Maintenance Program (IMP) grant, which was expected to be $4.2 million.

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“We know now that we will have some fairly significant reductions that we’re going to have to deal with this fiscal year and moving forward,” Mahon said.

“For the University of Lethbridge, it means that we’re going to have to work really hard to ensure that we look at the resources we have and the reductions that are related to those resources in a really critical way.”

READ MORE: Winners and losers in Alberta budget 2019

Neudorf said the changes for post-secondary students will be gradual, and recommended that Albertans try to keep things in perspective.

“It is important to understand, Alberta actually currently spends $10,000 more per student than the average of B.C., Ontario, and Quebec. That’s a significant dollar amount,” he said.

“What we don’t want to do is have less people go to universities, but we want it to be more effective.”

Funding for municipalities also saw a reduction.

Mayor Chris Spearman addressed those cuts on Friday.

“As expected, the provincial budget is one of restraint,” Spearman said.

“The big takeaway for Lethbridge is the reduction of MSI (Municipal Sustainability Initiative)capital funding. MSI funding is based on a per-capita basis, so the more people you have, the more money you’re allocated.”

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“We’ve relied on this money in the past for significant projects, but we won’t be able to rely on it anymore in the near future, so those projects will likely be delayed.”

The MSI funding is being phased out in exchange for the new Local Government Fiscal Framework Act, which will no longer require municipal census to decide funding.

Under the new fiscal framework, Alberta municipalities will receive $860 million in 2022-23.

Edmonton will get $184 million, $271 million will go to Calgary and $405 million will be divided between every other municipality in Alberta. After 2023, the funding will fluctuate based on the provincial government’s revenue.

While Spearman believes the amount of funds allocated to municipalities outside of Edmonton and Calgary is small, he added there are some important grants included in the budget.

“Some bright spots are grants for policing and mental health,” he said.

“There’s $40 million outlined for opioid response and even though there are no specifics yet on where this will be invested, it’s important that Lethbridge receive its fair share as we are a community that has demonstrated great need on this issue.”

When asked about supportive housing and theHighway 3 bridge replacement project, Spearman responded that there was simply not enough information yet from the province to speculate.

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“I think on capital projects that are not absolutely essential, we can see those moved out three to four years,” he said. “For the replacement of the bridge, I would say a commitment would be welcome.

“A commitment of three to four years out would be better than no commitment at all.”