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Manitoba Deficit Battle Includes Warning to School Boards on Costs

March 5, 2019 5:13 PM | The Canadian Press

By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press

Scott Fielding

Scott Fielding, MLA for Kirkfield Park, centre signs documents with Lieutenant Governor Janice Filmon after he is sworn into cabinet as the new minister of Finance and minister responsible for the civil service during Premier Brian Pallister’s cabinet shuffle announced at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg on August 1, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

WINNIPEG — Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government is warning school divisions to keep their property taxes in check or face a crackdown as part of an ongoing exercise in fiscal restraint that will continue in Thursday’s budget.

Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen, who joined Finance Minister Scott Fielding at a pre-budget news conference Tuesday, said any school division that ignores a provincial directive earlier this year to cap property tax increases at two per cent will be forced to cut administration costs.

“The province has the regulatory authority to limit administrative costs for school divisions,” Goertzen said.

“Those who are increasing their taxes more than two per cent … would have a higher ask when it comes to the administration costs. They would have to look for more savings.”

The Winnipeg School Division — the largest in the province — is considering a 2.9 per cent tax increase. One of the board’s trustees, Mark Wasyliw, said the increase is needed because the province is not funding schools adequately.

“Our voters did not vote for austerity,” Wasyliw said.

The province recently sent the board a letter detailing Goertzen’s warning, he said. The letter directs school boards to limit administrative costs to 2.7 per cent of their budget this year and warns the Winnipeg division that if its tax hike is enacted, it will be directed to cut administrative costs to 2.4 per cent from 2.7.

“It would be disastrous. It would be chaos,” Wasyliw said.

The Tory government was elected partly on a promise to balance the provincial budget and end a string of deficits that began under the former NDP government. Fielding said that work is ongoing and will be reflected in Thursday’s budget.

“There’s a recognition … that we were left with a heck of a mess and we’re cleaning it up and we’re doing things to sustain services for a long period of time,” Fielding said.

The government also announced a tax exemption Tuesday. Fielding said the province will not apply its provincial sales tax to the federal carbon tax when it takes effect April 1.

A tax on tax is not good public policy, Fielding said. The move will save Manitobans a total of about $3.6 million a year in home heating costs, he said.

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