Not city’s role to fund health, social services issues, Dionne says

Mayor supports working with local groups, short of promising funding in areas that fall under provincial responsibility; promises new cold weather shelter

Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne provides a COVID-19 response update in a video posted on Wednesday, April 1. -- City of Prince Albert/YouTube

Prince Albert’s mayor says supporting local not-for-profits battling homelessness is important, but that stepping in to fund provincial or federal responsibilities would be a mistake.

Mayor Greg Dionne’s comments come as more and more mayoral and council candidates are advocating for increased spending on housing, social services and mental health-based needs ahead of the November provincial election.

Dionne said the city has seen an increase in homelessness since the pandemic began, and it’s up to the province to step up and come forward with solutions.

“COVID has really brought the homeless people to the city. It’s really ballooned,” he said Wednesday. “We’re after the province to do something about it.”

In addition to asking the province for additional supports, something the cities of Saskatoon and North Battleford have also done, Dionne said the city is working alongside groups that work with vulnerable populations to find a home for a winter shelter.

While the city has limited space at a cold weather shelter run annually by the YWCA, Dionne says more space is needed.

“The last few days, with the colder weather, some of the homeless have seemed to disappear,” Dionne said. “Maybe they went back to their home reserves; we’re not sure. We’re monitoring it. The main thing is to get a winter shelter with our partners set up so we don’t have any freezing deaths.”

While Dionne is calling on the province to step up, other municipal election candidates want the city to chip in.

During his campaign kickoff on Monday, Ward 3 Coun. Evert Botha pitched a small fund, maybe about $50,000, culled from existing programming spending, to go towards easy harm prevention programming or programs for youth or gang intervention, such as Str8 Up.

In July, Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp put forward a motion asking administration to come forward with a report looking at potential partnerships in the city.

Lennox-Zepp said supporting current programs, like the anti-gang strategy operated by the West Flat Citizens Group through the Bernice Sayese Centre, will make Prince Albert safer while also saving money down the road.

Her motion passed following a brief debate, but Lennox-Zepp emphasized that this is about discussion.

Nothing has been decided.

“It’s just a report at this stage,” she said after the meeting. “I’d like to hear options.”

The West Flat Citizens Group was one of 10 community-based organizations to receive $20,000 in funding last year as part of Saskatchewan’s anti-gang strategy.

Saskatoon-based anti-gang organization Str8 Up has been helping Prince Albert develop their strategy.

Str8 Up started receiving $750,000 in federal funding last December. That funding is part of a four-year partnership.

Darryl Hickie, one of three challengers for the mayor’s chair, is including building a closer relationship with the city’s community-based organizations part of his election platform.

When he launched his campaign, he told the Herald what when it comes to addressing crime and addictions, it’s much more than just a provincial matter.

“I won’t even accept the premise of that statement,” he said.

“There are things the government has an obligation to fund but the city also has the same obligation to help its citizens.”

Friday, he criticized Dionne for grandstanding.

“This is just an election ploy by our mayor, the mayor of Saskatoon and North Battleford to make this an issue today. Where was this the last number of years? This didn’t start overnight,” he said.

Rather, he argued, it’s past time to reach out and work towards joint solutions.

“I would, as the mayor, call on the P.A. Grand Council to be at the table with me along with all the other organizations like Homeward Bound, YWCA, put the people who are much smarter than me to deal with this in the room and give me ideas, give us ideas as a city.”

Dionne, though, argues that it would be a mistake to step forward in an area where the province typically provides funding.

“As soon as you start funding one of their programs, you’re going to be in trouble because they’re going to say you don’t have a need. You’re paying for it and it’s their responsibility,” he said.

“It’s very easy for people who are on council or running to say that they’re going to get the province or feds to help with the money. I agree with that. But at the city, our budget is to run the municipality. We’re not in it for health care and social services. That’s 100 per cent the province’s (responsibility). We’re doing what we should be as politicians, soliciting ministers and provincial government to engage them.”

The city’s third declared mayoral candidate, Dennis Nowoselsky, was not available for comment.