WINNIPEG Mayor Sam Katz said his executive policy committee will have to make "difficult decisions" after hearing public feedback on the city's plans to reduce grants and boost councillors' discretionary budgets.
On Wednesday, executive policy committee (EPC) heard from nearly 30 delegations speaking on Winnipeg's 2013 capital and operating budgets, the spending plans for all city construction and services this year. The budget includes a 3.87 per cent property tax hike, one per cent of which will go to a reserve fund dedicated to fixing streets, lanes and sidewalks.
The city plans to find $13.6 million in savings by delaying filling vacant positions and reducing grants to non-profit groups by $358,000, including a 10 per cent cut for museums. At the same time, the budget provides $722,000 to create a policy development and communications office for EPC and for councillors' discretionary ward budgets to rise to $114,000 from about $74,000.
Several budget items received positive feedback, including the move to spend more on deteriorating streets, a strategy to combat Dutch elm disease and a commitment to the second leg of Winnipeg's rapid-transit corridor. But several councillors and members of the public took exception to plans to allot more money to councillors' ward budgets and reduce grants to museums and non-profit orgnizations.
Couns. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge), John Orlikow (River Heights) and Justin Swandel (St. Norbert) urged EPC to abandon plans to increase ward budgets, saying the money could be used for other priorities. St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes suggested the city reduce the ward budget increase to $16,000.
Governance committee chairman Coun. Grant Nordman (St. Charles) defended the plan to increase ward budgets, saying he's tired of provincial officials taking credit for joint initiatives because they have more money to spend on communication.
Canadian Taxpayers Federation Prairie director Colin Craig called the idea a "hard pill" for taxpayers to swallow, particularly since the extra spending adds up to $1.3 million when combined with the proposed EPC policy office. Craig and others pointed out the potential cost-savings from those two items could help restore funding to other areas in need.
"We didn't get so much as a courtesy of a heads-up this was coming," St. Boniface Museum board chairman Jean-Paul Gobeil said of the plan to reduce the museum's funding from $450,000 to $400,000.
Several councillors pushed for funding to ensure the Sherbrook Pool will be repaired. Coun. Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre) said he estimates it will only cost the city several hundred thousand dollars to fix the erosion at the base of the pool's pillars. The city closed the pool in November and has cancelled all swimming lessons there.
Katz would not say whether he will support an increase to councillors' ward budgets or restore cuts to grants. The mayor said EPC will review what delegates have said and make a decision.
The committee will vote on the budget and any amendments next Wednesday. A city council vote will follow on Jan. 29.
Finance chairman Coun. Russ Wyatt (Transcona) said the challenge is the city must balance its books, and to add items to the budget will have to either reduce spending in other areas or find new sources of revenue. He said the only real revenue-raising tool the city has is property taxes, which limits what it can do.