'Obviously, the government had to do something about it.'

Government of Nunavut cuts staff house rents


Government of Nunavut workers living in staff housing will pay lower rents as of April 1, while GN workers in private housing will get a new $400-a-month housing allowance, Louis Tapardjuk, the finance minister, announced in his budget speech this week.

"We know that there are very serious concerns about the staff housing rents and obviously, the government had to do something about it," Tapardjuk told reporters Feb. 20.

GN staff housing tenants in Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay started paying 20 per cent more in rent this past Jan. 1. At the same time, staff housing tenants in smaller communities started paying 10 per cent more.

Unionized government workers, especially those facing the 20 per cent hikes, complained loudly and the Nunavut Employees Union put the staff housing rent issue on the table during recent collective agreement talks.

But if MLAs pass the GN's 2008-09 budget, those staff housing rent hikes will be rolled back this April 1 to where they stood as of Jan. 1, 2007.

At the same time, GN employees who own their own homes or rent units in the private market will get a new housing allowance worth $400 a month per household, also starting this April 1.

The benefit will be paid out per household, and not necessarily to each employee, Peter Ma, the GN's deputy minister of finance, told reporters.

That means if two GN workers share the same privately owned or rented dwelling place, the benefit would be limited to $400 a month.

Ma said the move is aimed at helping the government recruit and retain staff.

GN staffing levels have been stuck at around 80 per cent of total strength for several years now. Because of this, Ma said the GN must find better ways to compete for workers within Canada's tight labour market.

About 700 GN jobs are vacant, which makes it hard to get things done.

"We need to be able to deliver the best possible services to people," Ma said.

For workers in the three big regional centres, the 20 per cent rent rollback would put $3,000 to $4,000 a year back into their pockets, Ma said. For those in smaller communities, the rent decrease would be worth $1,200 to $1,800 a year.

Overall, the GN plans to spend $1.162 billion during the 2008-09 fiscal year: $970.3 million on operations and $98.3 million on capital projects.

The territorial government expects to receive roughly the same amount in revenue and projects a small surplus of $4.5 million.

For Tapardjuk, who replaced David Simailak as finance minister less than two months ago, this was his first budget.

"I wish I had more time to put more content into that budget speech, but given the amount of time I had to do the best I could… but let me tell you, I'll be glad when I've delivered that speech," Tapardjuk told reporters just before stepping into the assembly chamber.

Tapardjuk said he's happy the government is in "a good fiscal situation" and that improved revenues now give the Nunavut government some flexibility.

But at the same time, three new pieces of legislation now before the house would, if passed, drive up the GN's spending this year.

Tapardjuk said the proposed new Education Act would require $14 million more each year, while the GN's two proposed language laws could raise spending by $12-$15 million per year.

Other highlights of the GN's 2008-09 budget include:

  • a firefighters tax credit worth $500 a year for firefighters who do at least 200 hours of community service;
  • an increase in the pension income tax credit that raises the amount of tax-free pension income for pensioners from $1,000 to $2,000;
  • a textbook tax credit worth $65 a month for full-time students and $20 a month for part-time students;
  • a new tax credit for businesses that train Nunavut workers, worth up to 30 per cent of tax payable;
  • a new program, still to be worked out, that would help outfitters pay increasing insurance costs.

Tapardjuk also announced the following community-based capital projects, for which various MLAs have lobbied aggressively over the past year:

  • new health centres in Repulse Bay and Arctic Bay;
  • a new school for Sanikiluaq, which Tapardjuk said is a "pressing need;"
  • a new school for Qikiqtarjuaq, which MLA James Arreak has been demanding for more than a year;
  • an expanded airport for Cambridge Bay, which MLA Keith Peterson had been demanding right up to the start of this week's assembly session;
  • a new runway lighting system for the Arviat airport.
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