Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Councillors OK hike in office cash

Call to restore cuts rejected

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Winnipeg politicians added an extra $40,000 to their office budgets this year despite a call to return some of the money to non-profit groups facing cuts.

City council voted Wednesday to approve Winnipeg's 2013 capital and operating budgets without any amendments. The move means two of the most controversial parts of the budget remain unchanged: a plan to increase councillors' discretionary ward budgets to $114,000 from $74,000, and a five per cent cut to museums. Other groups -- such as the Poverty Action Strategy -- will receive no city funding.

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Councillors have a discretionary annual budget to pay for executive assistants, ward activities, transportation, postage and other office expenses. Some councillors say the existing budget makes it difficult to attract and retain staff, operate their office and communicate with their constituents.

The $40,000 increase per ward adds up to a total of $600,000.

Couns. Justin Swandel (St. Norbert) and Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge) hoped for a compromise and asked council to reduce the increase to ward budgets by $17,600 in order to restore nearly $335,400 of funding cuts to museums and other non-profits.

Couns. Swandel, Gerbasi, Ross Eadie (Mynarski), Brian Mayes (St. Vital), John Orlikow (River Heights) and Dan Vandal (St. Boniface) voted in favour of that plan, but the majority of councillors did not agree. The motion was defeated by a vote of 10-6.

"It's very discouraging and I think it is going to stick in people's minds," Gerbasi said. "I think the public was very much against this increase for councillors."

Together, the capital and operating budget outlines more than $1.2 billion of city spending on everything from new construction to snow removal, and includes a 3.87 per cent property-tax increase expected to generate an additional $17.8 million. The move will help pay for the rising cost of police and emergency services, which account for 44 per cent -- $406 million -- of Winnipeg's $921-million operating budget.

One per cent of the property-tax increase -- $4.5 million -- will go toward a reserve fund dedicated to fixing residential streets, lanes and sidewalks. The city plans to continue to increase property taxes by one per cent in coming years to fix streets, unless Winnipeg finds another source of revenue.

This year's hike means the average homeowner will pay an extra $57 on his or her property-tax bill.

Last year, Winnipeg ended its 14-year tax freeze and raised property taxes 3.5 per cent, which cost the average homeowner $48 to $60 extra, depending on property assessment.

Mayor Sam Katz said Winnipeg continues to have the lowest municipal taxes in the country, and residents will be able to see the difference in improved street repairs. He said no budget is perfect, and questioned the sincerity of opponents of the ward-budget increase.

"I was hoping to see one councillor stand up and say, 'You know what, if this is approved I'm not taking the money,' " Katz said. "It never happened, so I have to question how sincere and genuine were they?"

Coun. Paula Havixbeck (Charleswood-Tuxedo) criticized city council for not finding more ways to save money. Havixbeck said councillors do not need more money in their ward budgets, noting she returned $9,000 of her budget from 2012, and the tax increase will make it harder for families and seniors on a fixed income.

"They're just taking the lazy way out," Canadian Taxpayers Federation Prairie director Colin Craig said of the tax hike.

Craig said Winnipeg could have saved millions over the past few years if it controlled salary hikes at the rate of inflation.

City council also rejected a call to reduce the increase in the rental fee for athletic fields. This year's operating budget calls for the fee to rent an athletic field to increase to $70 from $34. The extra revenue will be used to hire enforcement staff to find groups who use the fields and don't pay the fee.

Recreation groups warn the move will not improve the condition of athletic fields, which suffer from poor irrigation and holes, and will make it tougher for some Winnipeggers to play sports.

"That doesn't really help anything," Manitoba Organization of Disc Sports executive director Corey Draper said. "It's not solving the problem."

Finance chairman Coun. Russ Wyatt (Transcona) said Winnipeg spends $1.3 million a year to maintain more than 600 athletic fields and only raises $200,000 from rental fees. He said the bulk of the fee revenue is coming from youth sports, and there are many adult leagues using fields without paying the fee.

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

 

Highlights from the 2013 capital and operating budgets:

Property-tax hike: 3.87 per cent over 2012. One of those percentage points -- $4.5 million -- will be dedicated to road renewals.

Total spending on emergency services: $406.2 million, or 44 per cent of the operating budget.

Spending on city policy advisors: $579,136

Hike in council spending on councillors' own office budgets: $600,000, or $40,000 per ward.

Money for Sherbrook Pool repairs: $200,000

Street renewals: $50.4 million, up from $30.8 million in 2012

Former water-park cash: $7 million once set aside to subsidize a private water-park will be used to rebuild the East Elmwood community centre to the tune of $3.2 million, with the remaining $3.8 million divvied up among 14 other wards. Each will receive $271,000.

Polo Park traffic improvements: $30 million, using $20 million from the sale of the Canad Inns Stadium site.

Dutch Elm disease strategy: City will spend an additional $1.9 million on a Dutch elm disease strategy regardless whether the province will contribute matching funds.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2013 A4

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