While Prince Albert received some goodies in the Saskatchewan Party’s 2019-20 provincial budget, the city’s NDP MLA was expecting a lot more.
Nicole Rancourt is appreciative of the support that’s there but argues it doesn’t go nearly far enough to meet the needs of the city.
“I was disappointed with regards to Prince Albert,” she said.
The big announcement — funding for a new hospital — wasn’t included. Instead, the province promised additional funding for $2.5 million in pre-construction design work. While the Saskatchewan Health Authority and Mayor Greg Dionne both heralded the decision as a positive move showing a new facility is on the horizon, Rancourt said the move amounted to a “stall tactic.
“I was expecting a bigger and better financial commitment with regards to the hospital because we know the premier promised a provincially-funded hospital,” she said.
“We already know thieve worked on a design in previous years. I would like the government to get moving on this new bigger hospital so people can get more medical services in Prince Albert.”
Rancourt also took issue with the wording surrounding the hospital “redevelopment” She said she’s hoping the Saskatchewan Party sticks to its word.
“It’s nice to see that they’re still discussing it, but we know that they’ve been discussing building a hospital in Prince Albert, but we haven’t seen anything substantial. People are a bit concerned with the wording, that was placed within the document, whether they’re going to create a new bigger hospital or what their plans are. Hopefully, they honour their commitment … sooner rather than later, because people, I think, are getting tired of waiting for this investment.”
Prince Albert’s other MLA, Saskatchewan Party member Joe Hargrave, denied the $2.5 million in design funding amounted to stall tactics.
“I’m in on all these meetings. The Victoria Hospital is a big priority. It’s not a stall tactic. It has to be done right,” he said.
“It’s another step forward. We are still in discussions with the federal government on some stuff, and we’ll get our requests into them. We just want to make sure things are done and are done right.”
Hargrave added that there are a lot of different groups to take into consideration and that there is no “cookie cutter” hospital that can just be dropped into place.
‘We’re getting started,” he insisted. “It’s a good news story.”
Hargrave trumpets education, health and social services spending
Hargrave also praised other elements of the budget that should benefit Prince Albert.
“There’s some good stuff on mental health, there’s some good stuff on addictions in there that’s good for Prince Albert,” he said.
While Prince Albert could be eligible for some of the additional mental health beds, it’s currently unknown where those will go. The beds will be tendered out to interested community-based organizations to operate, the Saskatchewan Health Authority confirmed last week.
What Prince Albert will be getting is a new Rapid Access to Addictions Medication (RAAM) team, a project that will set up in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert this year in the hopes of connecting people with treatment more effectively and more quickly.
“It’s needed in Prince Albert,” Hargrave said.
“We’ve got some addictions problems in Prince Albert and addictions lead to lots of crime. That’s just a fact. There’s going to be a lot of money for mental health, and P.A. is going to be in for its fair share for that too.”
For her part, Rancourt is cautiously optimistic.
“We’re happy to see there’s more of an investment towards (mental health),” she said.
“We know the federal government has given the province a lot of money to put towards that. It’s good to see they’re honouring that. We know from the advocate that this is just a drop in the hat and we have to have more of an investment to address the issue.”
Rancourt said she’ll have to see what RAAM looks like and how many additional beds Prince Albert gets for mental health patients, but added it’s “nice to see” the province working towards providing more support for addictions patients.
When it came to education and social services, though, she was much more critical.
While the Saskatchewan Party touted education spending as an increase, a comparative analysis looking at per-student costs adjusted for inflation seems to point to an overall per-student decrease compared to five years ago.
“We know from educators that schools have been struggling because they haven’t been receiving the funding they need over the last few years,” Rancourt said.
“They’re not putting in enough resources and I’ve been hearing from our local school divisions that … more staff and teachers are finding it very stressful in the classroom. The per-student funding isn’t where it needs to be at, so this government needs to start making this more of a priority.”
She also had some reservations about plans for the social services sector. Rancourt is the NDP’s social services critic.
The Saskatchewan Party announced a forthcoming change to income assistance but said that details as to what that program will look like won’t come until later this year.
For Rancourt, that raised alarm bells.
“We see there is going to be some substantial changes with regard to the income support program, which I’m a bit concerned about because last year they cut the rental supplement program without having an alternative for individuals,” she said.
“We know that there are thousands of people that have been impacted with regards to the cutting of that program and not having any support any longer. Now they are going to be making some changes with the income support program but they don’t have a plan as of yet. That is concerning to me and we’ll be following that to make sure nobody is falling through the cracks.”
The increase in social services spending due to increased use is also concerning Rancourt. She said that indicates more families need help.
However, it wasn’t all bad.
“One of the good things that have happened within hits budget — and I’m interested to see how the minister is going to implement it — is they are talking about increasing the earned income exemption for individuals who are on assistance,” Rancourt said.
That is what front-line workers have been advocating for — allowing people who are on assistance to earn a little more money than they were allowed to previously so that they can start supporting independence for people who are able to work.”
While the opposition had its concerns, Hargrave and the Saskatchewan Party are pleased with the document they put forward.
‘There’s no increase in taxes and no new taxes. That tells you we’re on the right track and things are there,” Hargrave said.
‘We don’t have to keep raising taxes, we just have to manage the money, and I think we’re doing a very good job of that. There are demands on the money, and that’s an ongoing process. With no new taxes, we’re creating the right atmosphere for economic activity. That’s really positive for Prince Albert and for the rest of the province.
“It’s a budget all about the right balance. It was about responsible spending and responsible revenue generation. It brings about the right balance for the people of Saskatchewan and for the people of Prince Albert.”