Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Higher taxes, more cash for libraries in budget

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CITY councillors plan to raise taxes and spend more money on libraries, rapid transit and their own offices this year.

Winnipeg politicians will unveil the 2013 capital and operating budgets today, the blueprints that detail how much the city will spend on everything from road repairs and new construction to snow removal. Winnipeg will see its second straight property-tax hike to offset the rising cost of city services and increased spending on items such as police and paramedics.

While council finance chairman Coun. Russ Wyatt (Transcona) has declined to say how much property taxes will rise in 2013, he said officials made "very tough decisions." Wyatt said the city has a growing infrastructure deficit and no access to other sources of growth revenues to help balance its books. He said one the greatest challenges Winnipeg faces is finding enough revenue to provide all the civic services, noting increased spending on police and the fire department has added to the budgetary pressures.

Winnipeg's 14-year property-tax freeze came to an end last year when city council approved a 3.5 per cent tax hike to generate an additional $14.8 million. The city's 2012 operating budget outlined $900 million in spending -- a $53-million increase over the 2011 budget, primarily due to the rising cost of emergency services.

"It's a huge challenge to find revenues and at the same time meet expectations of the services... we've always provided to the public," Wyatt said Tuesday, following an announcement on library redevelopment in St. Vital.

While councillors have revealed few details about the budget, it is expected to include an increase to councillors' ward allowances. Councillors have a discretionary annual budget of $74,000 to pay for executive assistants, ward activities, transportation, postage, mailouts and other office expenses. Governance committee chairman Coun. Grant Nordman (St. Charles) said the existing budget makes it difficult to attract and retain staff and operate their office.

Nordman said provincial MLAs receive a $92,000 constituency allowance, even though they represent half as many constituents as members of city council. He declined to comment on how much more the annual ward allowance will be, but said the request for additional funds was made several months ago.

City officials have also offered a glimpse at Winnipeg's construction plans for 2013.

Officials announced on Tuesday Winnipeg will abandon plans to amalgamate the St. Vital and Windsor Park libraries and instead spend $4 million to build a new Windsor Park Library at the Bonivital Pool site and $1.8 million to renovate the St. Vital branch.

The money for the two projects was set aside in previous budgets, but the work never went ahead.

St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes said the initial idea to amalgamate the libraries made sense on paper, but officials reviewed the plans after the YMCA-YWCA redevelopment on Fermor Avenue. Mayes said the St. Vital library branch is in a "community hub" and officials decided to renovate the existing site and relocate the Windsor Park branch next to another year-round recreation facility.

"It's just a great local area, it's accessible by bus, so we made the decision to renovate here rather than try and look for a new site and possibly demolish this," Mayes said of the 50-year-old St. Vital branch.

The 2013 capital budget will include additional funds to start the library-redevelopment strategy -- a total of $24.6 million over the next six years -- which calls for eight city libraries to be renovated or replaced.

In the past month, officials have announced the city has earmarked $1.1 million to complete the design of the second leg of the Southwest Transitway, $7.3 million for the first of the city's new recycling centres and $10 million to ease traffic congestion in the Polo Park area.

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2013 B1

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