Fight for Meewasin’s survival about to intensify
A year ago, the Meewasin Valley Authority asked its three funding partners for $2.7 million in urgent money to fix cracked trails and its leaky interpretive centre.
Since then, the river valley conservation agency’s dark financial picture has turned decidedly darker.
The MVA has never lacked ambition, but now the South Saskatchewan River valley steward is fighting as much for its existence as to protect its conservation area.
In last year’s June budget, the Saskatchewan Party government slashed funding for five urban parks and hinted strongly that it could discontinue providing money to the remaining two.
From the province’s point of view, in tighter budgetary times, so-called urban parks should probably be paid for by municipalities, which have received a substantial boost in revenue sharing under the Sask. Party regime.
MVA officials have for some time pointed out that despite sustained funding, the buying power of the money the organization receives has weakened.
Residents saw this erosion become tangible July 1, when the MVA closed its interpretive centre. The agency had been hoping for a boost in provincial funding, but the budget supplied an identical amount to the previous budget.
In the aftermath, the Sask. Party government confirmed it would review funding for the two remaining urban parks: Meewasin in Saskatoon and the Wascana Centre in Regina.
The MVA gets money from three sources: the province, the City of Saskatoon and the University of Saskatchewan — the same three bodies that founded the agency in 1979. Wascana is funded by the province, the City of Regina and the University of Regina.
The MVA got $740,000 in the 2016-17 provincial budget, while Wascana got $3,618,000. Wascana is responsible for 930 hectares, while Meewasin’s conservation territory is nearly seven times larger, at about 6,400 hectares.
Perhaps tellingly, separate bodies are conducting the reviews of funding for each. The Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport is reviewing the MVA’s funding, while the Provincial Capital Commission is reviewing Wascana’s funding. The commission’s mandate is to instil “pride and optimism” in Saskatchewan through its provincial capital.
It’s entirely possible — perhaps even likely — the two reviews will produce different outcomes.
The commission might say $3.6 million is a small price to pay for pride and optimism that would be dampened by an underfunded, dishevelled Wascana Park surrounding the Legislative Building.
The parks ministry, meanwhile, might conclude $740,000 is too much to pay for an urban park. The review could result in $1.5 million being pulled from the MVA’s $3.5-million budget, if you include the U of S money.
It’s not just the money, either. The MVA’s independent status allows it to leverage money through fundraising that would not likely be available to a body funded and controlled solely by the city.
Supporters of the MVA say the river valley is better classified as a conservation zone with provincial significance.
It’s understandable if optimism for the outcome of the MVA’s review has diminished. Throughout the review, the province has declined to set a timetable. When the review was first confirmed in June, a parks ministry spokeswoman said the venture would be “timely.”
The most recent statement from the ministry, earlier this month, said the final decision will probably be made as part of the provincial budget in about two months.
In what is widely expected to be the Sask. Party’s first bad-news budget since taking office in 2007, a cut to MVA funding could be lost amid other austerity measures. Why release the review results separately for an extra day of negative press? And why wait, if the news is good?
Some are unwilling to let the MVA disappear in its current form without a fight, however.
The Saskatchewan Government Employees Union (SGEU) has produced three videos urging the province to keep funding the MVA. SGEU represents about 30 MVA employees.
Saskatoon city council unanimously endorsed a message to the province in June, stressing the Meewasin Valley is more than an urban park and calling any weakening of the partnership “devastating.”
Mayor Charlie Clark’s successful campaign in October relied on criticizing former mayor Don Atchison’s tepid response to a possible provincial pullout of MVA funding.
Clark effectively used Atchison’s “sometimes there just isn’t any more in the cookie jar” quote against him.
The MVA, meanwhile, is still struggling to repair its crumbling trail system and to protect the environmentally sensitive Northeast Swale as development and roadways threaten it.
Unlike Atchison, Clark has indicated more of a willingness to criticize the higher levels of government.
The first test of that willingness could be coming soon.