Chambers of Commerce in the Northwest Territories expressed grave reservations about the cost of Premier Caroline Cochrane’s new 150-employee Covid-19 secretariat.
The added bureaucratic positions in the Department of Health and Social Services are expected to cost $87.1 million over two years, according to the GNWT Department of Finance.
The letter is signed by the leadership of the NWT, Yellowknife, Thebacha and Fort Simpson chambers. It says the money would be better spent hiring health care professionals than office workers.
“This announcement has raised several concerns from the business community,” states the letter. “Thus far, the total cost of a new GNWT division is budgeted at $86 million; $23.4 million from the federal government funding that was earmarked to better prepare our healthcare system.
“The primary justification for our extensively restrictive regulations, rules, and policies regarding Covid-19 was not to overburden an already taxed health system. Thus, we feel the $23.4 million would be better allocated to better preparing the healthcare system, not creating another unnecessary level of bureaucracy.”
The letter adds that business community representatives had been led to believe that they were already expected to raise additional revenue during the last budget in order to meet costs.
“We just went through budget deliberations where the business community was essentially told that it is up to us to generate more revenue,” the letter states. “It was indicted that the GNWT could not cut costs anywhere thus the business community would have to carry the burden through increased small business tax (we currently have the highest small business tax in Canada already) and the possible introduction of a sales tax.
“By creating 150 new permanent positions, the GNWT puts an even further burden on the business community to financially support these new jobs.”
Rene Comeau, executive director of the Northwest Territories Chamber of Commerce said Friday that Chamber members started sending emails and letters to her organization as soon as the territorial government made its announcement, criticizing the GNWT as to where money was being directed.
“Everybody was completely blindsided by this announcement,” Comeau said.
“The business community is floundering. It was struggling before and now it is floundering and one of the biggest complaints from the business community has been the lack of response from the GNWT.”
Cochrane is expected to respond to the Chamber letter by Sept. 24, Comeau said. The issue is expected to be put to a vote when the legislature resumes sitting Oct. 15.
Lesa Semmler, MLA for Inuvik-Twin Lakes, whose background is in public health, said that she expects to vote on the issue in the next session and is concerned about where money is being spent.
“With all the information I have to date I agree with the Chamber of Commerce letter,” she stated in an email.
“With my past previous background in public heath, which includes testing of communicable diseases and contact tracing, spending the money on increasing testing to everyone entering and increasing screening and monitoring and testing during this 14 days should be the priority. So we can contain any Covid cases if and when we do get cases.”
This story will be updated.