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Critics slam Katz over just-released budget info

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Critics on the left and right are crying foul that fine details of the city's spending plans for 2008 were only made public six days before council is slated to approve them.

City council will meet this Wednesday to debate Winnipeg's $768-million operating budget, which holds the line on property taxes but features cuts to almost every city department aside from Public Works, the Winnipeg Police Service and the Winnipeg Fire-Paramedic Service.

The broad strokes of the budget were announced on March 6, but the fine details contained in a document called the Service-Based View were only released on Thursday.

Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, a consistent critic of Mayor Sam Katz, is upset she had to spend the Easter long weekend reviewing the second document to see exactly what cuts are facing city departments.

She said it appears council is proposing cuts to the likes of litter collection, Handi-Transit, lawn maintenance in parks and tree-planting, none of which were made apparent when the budget was originally announced.

Gerbasi said she's also disappointed voters had no chance to scrutinize these details before Katz's cabinet invited citizens to offer their opinions about the budget at a public meeting one week ago today.

"Thirty people came down to city hall to speak (about) the budget. How do you think those people feel right now knowing there was this second document?" Gerbasi said.

Adding fuel to Gerbasi's ire is the fact the 2008 Service-Based View does not compare this year's spending plans to what the city actually spent on specific services in 2007.

Last year's Service-Based View compared the city's spending plans to the actual budget figures from 2006.

The failure to provide comparisons this year -- coupled with the late release of the Service-Based View -- is also being panned by Adrienne Batra, the Manitoba director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

"Coun. Gerbasi is quite right to raise this as an issue," said Batra, a fiscally conservative pundit who rarely sides with the left-wing councillor from Fort Rouge.

"The mayor's office touted with great fanfare they were going to move toward service-based budgeting, so citizens could have a better idea what's going to happen. But when they produced this year's operating budget, for whatever reason, they chose not to do that."

A spokesman for the mayor said the city remains committed to service-based budgeting, an initiative pioneered by Katz.

"The facts are the budget process went later than originally expected. There were tough decisions to keep property taxes frozen and find efficiencies in every department," communications director Brad Salyn said in an e-mail on Sunday.

"The public service then worked diligently to craft this booklet as soon as possible once the final recommendations had been made to council.

"This book for services contains no new numbers. It simply provides even more transparency and is organized around services rather than departments."

Expected in February, the 2008 operating budget was unveiled approximately two weeks late in March, following what city hall sources describe as a difficult process of negotiation among members of council's executive policy committee.

As a result, Batra doesn't believe the tardy release of the Service-Based View was deliberate.

"Perhaps this isn't a function of deceit, as much as it is a function of disorganization," she said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 24, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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