Fight for Mee­wasin’s sur­vival about to intensify

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - OPINION - PHIL TANK ptank@post­media.com twit­ter.com/think­tankSK

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.

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