A year ago this month, elected officials in Winnipeg batted around the idea of adding another seat to city council. Ever since 1992, the city has had 15 wards, and some councillors had grown concerned their wards had become too populous to adequately represent.
From 1992 to 2012, the city's population grew to 700,000 from 627,000. While the average ward only grew by a few thousand people, unequal population growth in different Winnipeg wards left fast-growing St. Vital, St. Norbert, Old Kildonan and Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry with tens of thousands of more constituents than declining St. James-Brooklands and St. Charles.
A redistribution of the city's population through the adjustment of ward boundaries initially was deemed to be a poor solution, as the historic and geographic boundaries of some wards needed to be respected. Simply shifting Winnipeg's population to high-growth wards would have lumped together socially disparate neighbourhoods.
A better solution, according to a 2012 report to council's governance committee, was to add a new ward to the city. Such a move would have given the city flexibility to adjust ward boundaries and respect the territorial integrity of the 15 existing wards, according to the report.
The new ward, which would have been created in time for the 2014 municipal election, likely would have been carved out of southeast Winnipeg. But since the city charter says Winnipeg must add two new wards at a time when it adds wards, provincial permission was required.
The plan didn't even get that far, as councillors deemed it too expensive. One more councillor and one more ward allowance would have added $175,000 to the city's annual operating budget.
Now, almost a year after rejecting this request, city council is poised to add $600,000 to the budget to boost the ward allowance for all 15 councillors. The stated reason? An additional $40,000 per councillor would better allow each one of them to represent their constituents.
Council finance chairman Russ Wyatt (Transcona), the main architect of the 2013 operating budget, said the average city councillor represents twice as many people as the average Winnipeg MLA, but has a smaller budget to use in response.
"By and large, councillors work hard responding to the concerns of their constituents. There are times of the year when they feel they need that support," he said, noting the request for the extra cash came from council's governance committee, which has no representation on the more powerful executive policy committee.
"We're often criticized if we don't listen to non-members of EPC," Wyatt said. "Well this time, we did."
And now, Wyatt and Mayor Sam Katz have heard from members of council who do not approve at all of the idea of spending more money on their own offices.
Fort Rouge Coun. Jenny Gerbasi called the move outrageous at a time when the city is cutting grants to non-profit organizations. She's especially upset by the elimination of a $45,000 poverty action strategy.
The 14-year council member believes the cash will be used to pay for more bus benches, mailouts and other communications that will help incumbents get re-elected in 2014.
"If there were no shortage of money, we could always use more cash, as there's no shortage of ways to spend it," she said. "But it's about getting this council re-elected. This has not been done properly and this has not been done ethically."
Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck feels the same way about spending the extra $600,000, especially as council plans to raise property taxes 3.87 per cent this year. Havixbeck agrees councillors could use more money to spend on their executive assistants but does not believe now is the time to do so. "How can we inflate our budgets by 50 per cent? It just doesn't make sense," she said.
What would have made more sense for council is to add not one but two new wards, which would have improved representation at a total annual cost of $350,000. This, incidentally, was the initial recommendation of the independent ward-boundaries commission.
Such a move would have dropped the average ward population to 41,176 people, using 2012 population estimates. And that would still be double the population of the average provincial riding, whose MLAs are allowed to spend $92,000 each.
Given the gap in workloads and spending allowances, it's easy to see why some councillors want more money. But if democratic representation is the goal, then hire a few more councillors, if not for 2014, then for 2018, when Winnipeg's population is predicted to be about 750,000.