By Jamie Bennett and Diane Crocker
ST. JOHN’S — The province’s former finance minister said Tuesday the city fared relatively well in the 2013 provincial budget.
Tom Marshall, the current minister of natural resources in Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s Tory government, said the province’s wealth in recent years has been the result of high demand and prices in the oil and gas, as well as mineral sectors.
With prices now down globally, he said the province had no choice but to cut spending and slash jobs in order to rein in a projected deficit of $1.6 billion.
“When the money was rushing in, we could spend a lot of money,” Marshall said. “It’s the people’s money, we don’t keep it. When demand for the commodities drops, which means the prices drop, the oil and mining companies make less money ... and therefore governments receive less money.”
Tuesday’s $7.6 billion budget is expected to reduce that deficit to a projected $563.8 million. To do so, the government has implemented measures which will slash hundreds of jobs in the public sector and see one english-language and one French-language school board located in St. John’s
The new english-language board with be an amalgamation of the current four boards, although regional offices will still operate in Gander, Corner Brook and Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
While he doesn’t expect to see a reduction in services due to this amalgamation, Marshall said he’s sympathetic to those who might lose their jobs but is confident there remains plenty of work in the province.
“It’s unfortunate and I certainly emphasize with people who have been effected by this,” he said. “But the provincial economy is strong and there are a lot of jobs and opportunities out there.”
Marshall’s own department will lose 43 jobs through attrition and another 16 seasonal silviculture positions will not be called back.
As part of $72.2 million in spending in long term health care across the province, the city’s long term care facility will get funds to finish its 14-bed restorative care unit.
There is also $6.6 million for the redevelopment of the former Regina High School into a new junior high facility. Some $500,000 thousand will be spend to start the process of turning G.C. Rowe Junior High School into a primary school servicing the eastside of the city.
With hundreds of millions set aside for the new regional hospital in the city, as well as cash to finish road work from Pasadena to Deer Lake, Massey Drive to the ring road, as well as from Corner Brook to Pinchgut Lake, Marshall said things could have been much worse in the region.
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“It’s not different from a family — if income drops, you have to cut your expenditures accordingly,” he said. “Corner Brook has done very well in what has been a very difficult budget. It’s tough times and a lot of people are going to be envious.”
He said he recently met with officials at Corner Brook Pulp and Paper and expects to make an announcement regarding "support" for the mill once the company finishes negotiations with its unions.
“We can’t interfere in that process and we have to be respectful of it,” he said. “We’re looking forward to them doing their thing.”
Meanwhile Eddie Joyce, Liberal MHA for the Bay of Islands, was much more pessimistic about what the budget will mean for the region.
He said the amalgamation of the school boards is proof of the government’s desire for more control.
“They want the office closer to them ... and there’s no doubt that’s going to lead to a loss of jobs and a lot of people will have to move,” Joyce said.
With the city’s municipal operating grant of $660,000 gone as a result of the budget, which he said was done without consultation with the city, he expects the community will be in a bind this year.
“The City of Corner Brook has to come up with $660,000 dollars with nine months of their budget left,” he said. “That money goes toward operating the city services. You are talking about basic services like water lines and garbage collection. They will have to come up with it somehow.
“I’m willing to bet the first the mayor heard of this was when he sat in on the budget. There was absolutely no consultation whatsoever.”
Joyce suspects the government is making the massive cuts now with an eye towards a run at reelection in 2015.
“It’s not about substantiality or the people of the province — it’s a budget to try to get this government reelected,” he said. “They have no plan, they are flying by the seat of their pants.”