Mayor Shari Decter Hirst says it’s "inconceivable" that Brandon Municipal Airport renewal is not included in Manitoba’s 2014 budget.
"We can’t handle two flights a day comfortably with our existing facility," Decter Hirst said. "And for the government not to understand how critically important it is for economic development, for tourism, for leisure travel … I find baffling."
Decter Hirst and several other community leaders met yesterday at Westman Communications Group, where they gathered around the TV to watch Finance Minister Jennifer Howard deliver the budget speech from the Manitoba legislature. Following the release of the budget details, they taped a show that aired last night on WCGtv.
Howard’s first budget contains only minor fee increases and a commitment to raise the minimum wage again — two of the few standouts in a budget that focuses most on holding the line and putting more people to work.
Included in the budget, one of the shorter ones in recent years, is also a commitment to balance the budget by 2016, when Manitoba’s books will be $39 million on the positive side.
Brandon was mentioned three times in Howard’s speech — one of which was the Daly Overpass.
"We will partner to advance work on the reconstruction of the Daly Overpass and improving Victoria Avenue," Howard said.
Decter Hirst was disappointed there weren’t any further details regarding this project.
"We haven’t got any more information … than we had when they first announced it in November in the throne speech," she said. "The budget is supposed to be the framework and the structure, that is the plan going forward. So I’m not sure, have we missed it? Or is it just not in the plan for 2014?"
The mayor plans to follow up with Howard today, who will be in Brandon. She says her first two questions will be, "Where’s our airport and when are we starting on that bridge?"
Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell said the mayor shouldn’t be surprised that the airport wasn’t referenced in the budget.
"First and foremost, the airport is a federal responsibility, Transport Canada … The province isn’t the lead on the Brandon Municipal Airport," Caldwell said. "We will be participating in any initiative that sees the airport further developed in Brandon. I think that is an important part of the economy in western Manitoba."
Brandon West Progressive Conservative MLA Reg Helwer said there were "no real answers" in the budget about the Daly Overpass.
"They’re going to partner with whom? The feds? The city? Does the city need to pay for provincial infrastructure?" he said, adding he was disappointed there weren’t more mentions of Brandon in the speech.
Howard announced a new Manitoba Rent Assist benefit to support low-income Manitobans living in private rental housing. Once fully implemented, rent support for those on social assistance will rise to 75 per cent of median market rent.
Howard also said the province will be expanding its partnership with the City of Winnipeg, to build more downtown rental housing, and will "extend that approach to Brandon."
"Bringing up the rental assistance to low-income folks … has been called for by poverty advocates over the last couple of years," Caldwell said. "That’s a major initiative that will assist folks in finding suitable affordable housing … Both of those ones in Brandon are going to change people’s lives."
Howard also announced that senior homeowners will be able to apply for a school tax rebate. This move will take an additional 7,200 seniors off the school tax rolls.
"It’s … a step in the right direction for the seniors that we certainly hear from frequently as school board trustees," said Brandon School Division trustee Kevan Sumner.
Overall, Sumner said there were no real surprises in the budget regarding education.
"That, in my opinion is a very good thing for us," he said. "In some recent budgets we’ve had major announcements that had a major impact on our local finances."
Brandon was also mentioned in the speech when Howard spoke about roundtable meetings throughout the province.
"We heard from Manitobans about their priorities for infrastructure," Howard said. "They told us that investing in core infrastructure will create jobs, expand trade and make our economy more competitive."
Todd Birkhan, Brandon Chamber of Commerce vice-president, was pleased to see there will be an improved tax credit of $5,000 to encourage employers to take on more apprentices.
"There is a labour shortage around the province, and seeing that I think is important," he said, adding, "Seeing a reduction in the deficit overall, as much as it may not be where we want it to be, it still is a reduction, it’s moving in the right direction."
But Birkhan said the budget was lacking more direct investments into economic drivers.
"Provincial Road 256 in the south is one that the oil sector has really been pushing to say … ‘we need this paved to expand our growth,’" he said. "We didn’t see any mention of that, we didn’t see any mention of airport investment, it really didn’t seem to be focused on things that would help spur economy, to help create further revenue and help businesses be more successful."
Both Brandon University and Assiniboine Community College were pleased to see increasing operating grants — 2.5 per cent for universities and two per cent for colleges.
"We’re seeing provinces across the country have zero (per cent increases) or even cuts to education funding," said Steve Horne, ACC director, executive and board operations. "So for us to have an increase is important and it stays with the cost of inflation."
There was no mention of the third phase of ACC’s move to the North Hill. Horne said they will continue discussions about relocation.
"We’re always expecting a signal, whether it’s a throne speech or whether its a budget," he said.
Caldwell said the province remains committed to the project.
"We’ve been moving forward on building ACC in a serious fashion with funds since 2000," he said. "It’s a very, very big project and it will take and does take a number of years to get that job done. We’re not retreating from it at all."
» firstname.lastname@example.org,with files from the Winnipeg Free Press