Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Get ready for some pain

Preliminary civic budget features a new property tax hike, unpaid days off, unfilled jobs

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Unpaid leaves. Job losses. Property tax increase.

They were all there in a preliminary budget unveiled Friday by Mayor Sam Katz and members of his executive policy committee.

To no one's surprise, property taxes will increase 2.95 per cent -- it had been reported by the Free Press and other media outlets earlier in the week.

The surprise came from how Katz and his EPC members came up with a 2014 operating budget of $967.8 million, $45.1 million more than budgeted for 2013 -- an increase of 4.9 per cent.

All non-essential civic employees will have to take 3.5 days of unpaid leave between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day next year, saving the city $1.5 million.

Katz said non-essential staff in all departments will be affected, including himself and councillors, but he vowed emergency services -- police, fire and paramedics -- will not be affected.

"We're all in this together," Katz said, adding he believes most city staff will look forward to the time off at Christmas, even if it's without pay. "I think it's not that painful. It also helps in the big picture."

The property tax increase differs from the percentage increase in the tax-supported budget, which also includes business tax revenue and money from a variety of sources, including licences, fees and government grants.

Other cost-saving measures include trimming councillors' ward allowances by $37,000 each; allowing job vacancies across all departments to go unfilled, saving $14.1 million; eliminating 20 senior management/professional positions, saving $2 million and diverting $10 million from a variety of reserve accounts.

The president of the city's largest union said he will investigate whether the city can enforce an unpaid leave, adding he doesn't believe it's a realistic plan.

"Departments are being denied furloughs right now because we can't meet the needs of the citizens of Winnipeg," said Mike Davidson, president of CUPE Local 500.

City officials said the 2.95 per cent property tax hike works out to a $45 increase for 2014 on a typical home assessed at $262,780.

Winnipeg homeowners enjoyed a 13-year property tax freeze before council imposed a 3.5 per cent increase in 2012, followed by a 3.87 per cent increase for 2013.

Katz said Winnipeg has had the lowest increases of all major Canadian municipalities, adding it's unlikely the city will see a return to a tax freeze unless the province agrees to share revenue with city hall.

"We're working hard to keep property taxes down," he told reporters after the budget was released. "The reality is no one wants to see their property taxes go up," but he said the increase amounts to 12 cents a day for every homeowner.

The preliminary budget will be subject to committee reviews over the next 21/2 weeks. Council will vote on the final budget at a special meeting Dec. 17.

Couns. Paula Havixbeck and Scott Fielding, who are both considering mayoral runs, panned the proposed budget, claiming tax increases are not necessary or justified.

WHERE SAVINGS WERE FOUND

It may end up being called the Katz Christmas lump of coal -- non-essential civic employees will be forced to take 3.5 days of unpaid leave between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day in 2014, saving the city an expected $1.5 million. The mayor said the unpaid leave will affect himself and city councillors, but vowed emergency services -- fire, police, paramedics -- will not be affected. A pay cut at Christmas, hmmm. The city will also eliminate 25 positions -- 20 of them at the senior management/professional level -- for a $2-million saving. But the biggest hit will come by allowing vacancies across all departments to go unfilled, which the city says will save $14.1 million. The city is also taking a $2-million "dividend" from the Winnipeg Parking Authority, a practice stopped several years ago.

WHAT WASN'T IN THE BUDGET

If you're constantly stuck on Waverley Street or Taylor Avenue while a train holds up traffic, don't look to city hall for help in 2014. There's no money set aside for a Waverley underpass and it's been removed from the list of long-term capital projects. Fans of the Sherbrook Pool also came away empty-handed. There is money for community consultations but no funds to reopen or replace the historic pool, which was shut down more than a year ago. A new North End police station to replace the aging facility on Hartford Avenue has been pushed back to 2017. Construction was to have begun in 2015.

COMMUNITY & RECREATION SERVICES

The city is proposing a unique partnership with the Winnipeg YM-YWCA, committing to finance one-third of the construction cost of three recreational super-campuses over the next 10 years -- but only if Ottawa and the province agree to contribute equal amounts. Each facility -- in the southwest, northeast and northwest areas -- will house all the traditional Y facilities, and some civic amenities could also be located on each campus. Katz praised the initiative as a way to provide recreational programming without having to spend additional money on programming or maintenance. If the plan goes ahead, the city will be on the hook for a total of $46.6 million.

EMERGENCY SERVICES

The city is increasing spending for police, fire and paramedics by a combined 3.7 per cent, for a total of $425.6 million in 2014, accounting for 44 per cent of the city's operating budget -- essentially the same percentage as in 2013. The WPS budget will be $257.9 million, an 8.6 per cent increase; the WFPS is getting $167.6 million, a 2.9 per cent increase. The increases are the result of salary and benefit increases through collective bargaining.

BUSINESS TAX

The city shaved the business-tax rate but will see an increase in revenue as a result of more businesses opening or expanding. The tax rate will be reduced to 5.7 per cent from 5.9 per cent, but total revenue will climb to $59.7 million, up from $58.4 million in 2013. The small business tax credit ensures the smallest businesses, 41 per cent of all businesses, get a full rebate on their business taxes.

PROPERTY TAX

City officials say a 2.95 per cent increase will translate to a $45 increase on the typical property tax bill based on a home assessed at about $263,000. You can find your home's assessment at: http://www.winnipegassessment.com/AsmtTax/English/Propertydetails/

The city will collect $510.6 million from property tax revenue, an increase of 5.7 per cent from 2013. Homeowners continue to pay a greater share of the tax-supported budget. In 2011, revenue from property taxes covered 51.45 per cent of the budget. In 2014, that share will reach 52.76 per cent. In contrast, the business tax share of the budget continues to slide -- 6.1 per cent in 2014 from 6.8 per cent in 2011.

MAYOR AND COUNCIL

This cost was forecast at $6.1 million for 2014 but came in at $5.5 million. The savings came from cutting the councillors' ward allowances by $37,000 each. The mayor's office budget wasn't touched.

STREETS

The city set up a reserve account for local street upgrades for 2013, designating one percentage point of the tax increase for this purpose. For 2014, the city set aside another one percentage point of the tax increase to create a regional-street reserve. Including capital funds, the city will spend $48.9 million on local street upgrades and $35.3 million on regional streets.

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2013 A6

History

Updated on Saturday, November 30, 2013 at 9:39 AM CST: added video

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