Stop number two of the AMM President’s Tour of Manitoba – part of the Putting Communities First Campaign – was the Interlake community of Gimli, nestled on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. Not surprisingly, the health of the Lake was top of mind for the group which was largely comprised of local business owners.
“Every municipality should focus on water and drainage because it all ends up in Lake Winnipeg,” said Roy Eyjolfson, representing Evergreen Basic Needs. “You’ve got a guy living in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, and what goes down his sink and flushes down his toilet ends up in Lake Winnipeg.” MLA for Gimli, Peter Bjornson, agreed. “There is no particular sector responsible for the health of the Lake. All Manitobans are responsible for the health of the Lake,” he said. Former councillor Bill Barlow applauded both the NDP and the PCs for coming together to pass the Save Lake Winnipeg Act – “demonstrating a very strong commitment by both parties to deal with the Lake Winnipeg story” – it has resulted in limited success, according to some, like local developer Bruce Arnason. “The problem is the repeated damage to roads and waterfront property due to flooding. What seems to be missing are solutions to the problem.”
Another hot topic for the Interlake group was economic development and its partner, affordable housing. Michael Lazer, General Manager of the Lakeview Inn noted “I’d love to hook up with programs through Red River Community College to train people to move here to work in the industry, but I have no place to put them,” he said. Local realtor Judy Arnason agreed, adding “We need affordable housing…our population is probably the oldest in Manitoba,” she estimated.
Recreation facilities are also sorely needed in the area, according to a group called the Eastern Interlake Multiplex Steering Committee. The group’s representative, Eric Stefanson, focussed on the need for community wellness. “I think it is imperative for the province and the federal government to take a good look at recreation. Health care costs are going up and up, but what are we doing to help municipalities fund these projects? We need them to attract people to the area and build a healthy community.”
Mayor of Gimli, Lynn Greenberg was quick to note Gimli has enjoyed success regardless of what political party is in office. “We have been fortunate. We’ve received $3.5 million from the Municipal Rural Infrastructure Fund, $6.5 million from the Manitoba Water Services Board…we’ve had cooperation in the past, but we need cooperation in the future to keep going,” cautioned the Mayor before presenting a considerable laundry list of needs in the area. “Waterline replacement will be a $10M job, sewer line renewal is an $833,000 job, a regional water system will total $34 million, and we still owe almost $8 million on our sewage treatment facility that will mature in 2032,” stated Greenberg. “Where are we going to get the money for all this?”
The community’s Aspen Park subdivision alone, which the group toured in a “field trip” immediately following the meeting, requires an additional $500 thousand investment in sewer line renewal. “Our sewer and water systems were built in 1957, and are costing us $100,000 per year just for patching and repairing,” explained Greenberg. (In fact, the Public Works staff on the site talked about a day where they responded to eight water line breaks!)
According to Bjornson, “I think clearly we (the NDP government) have been putting communities first through partnerships, and partnerships are key.” Bjornson also cited the current government’s reduction of property taxes on education as freeing up space on the tax bill for some municipalities to dedicate to infrastructure. However, municipalities are still unable to raise sufficient dollars with only one source of revenue, and the division of funds should be more equitable according to Greenberg. “Funding formulas for infrastructure have always been shared equally on a one-third basis. I’d like to see the formula change to something more like 45% federal, 37% provincial, and 18% municipal.”
MLA for Lakeside, Ralph Eichler, (who was accompanied by PC candidate for Gimli, Jeff Wharton) acknowledged the infrastructure deficit facing communities and the need to work with municipalities but would not commit to new funding until “we have a look at the books”. However, he complimented the AMM on the Putting Communities First initiative. “I think the Putting Communities First program is a great program…which I believe will set the pace for the October 4 election.”
So do we.