While mayoral candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette has his eyes on trimming some salaries to right the city's fiscal ship, cutting paycheques would be no simple task, officials say.
Last week, Ouellette promised to trim upper- and middle-management salaries that are more than $80,000 if he's elected.
He said he floated that figure because it's the salary he draws from the University of Manitoba as an administrator and he says he's happy with that amount.
Ouellette said he's not talking about a massive slashing of salaries, but a five per cent cut as a sign that "all levels of leadership need to lead by example."
"I'm not bringing people down to $80,000," Ouellette said on Wednesday.
"You still have to be able to entice a normal worker to move into higher management, so you can't cut it by 20 or 30 per cent.
"But if you have to ask employees to do more with less, then management has to do something."
Ouellette's pledge could be tough to accomplish because more than just middle- and upper-management personnel earn more than $80,000 -- hundreds of civic employees earn that, and their ranks include firefighters, police constables and others once overtime is factored in.
There are also legal considerations.
The official word from the city, via Linda Burch, the city's director of corporate support services, in a statement is "salaries, benefits and working conditions are negotiated between the city and the unions and associations representing our employees."
"With regard to agreements already in effect, concurrence would be required from both the city and the union/association in order to reopen negotiations."
Labour lawyer Garth Smorang said union positions and their wages are protected by collective agreements.
He said while non-union managers "can be terminated at any time," severance would have to be paid and could add up to a large figure.
"In the short term it would cost a large amount of money," Smorang said.
"Then you would seek people who want to apply and get half of what the last person got. You can imagine he would get pretty poor applicants."
Smorang said if Ouellette were able to trim managers' salaries, depending on the amount, they could say they have come under "constructive dismissal."
"You have changed the terms and conditions of employment so therefore I quit and you owe me severance... from a legal point of view, I don't know how it saves money."
Last week, Ouellette unveiled a platform he called Rebuilding the Fiscal Balance Part One.
The platform included cutting the salaries of upper and middle management, but it also looked at using less-costly civilians to carry out some functions police officers now perform, cutting overtime by police by 80 per cent, creating a recruitment freeze to assess whether the position is needed before filling the position, and publishing job-vacancy information online instead of placing ads in national media outlets.
Ouellette would also propose leasing space in libraries across the city for coffee shops.
Paul Thomas, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba's political studies department, said if there's one lesson that can be learned from Sam Katz's terms as mayor, it is how difficult it is to try to run the city like a business.
"It's a simple thing to suggest to cap the salaries because we'll save some money," Thomas said. "But what will we do if the pool of employees needed to run the city is reduced?
"If you're an MBA graduate, you can go to work elsewhere... it will have unseen consequences."
The heads of a couple of the city's unions are also skeptical about Ouellette's platform.
"I don't think it's realistic to say you'll just hold the line on salaries," said Mike Davidson, president of CUPE 500, which represents many of the unionized employees at the city.
"It would be a popular statement to make to the public at election time, but what also needs to be considered is the city has a retention problem, especially in the trades. They are being scooped by the private sector, which is paying market-value salaries.
"It's popular to say, but if we want to have a well-run workforce you have to pay the market rate."
Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said most firefighters earn more than $80,000 once overtime is added onto their salaries.
"The basic fact is we have collective bargaining," Forrest said on Wednesday.
"The wages have been bargained by the city and are in place. The system is for fair wage increases."
Forrest said the contract for firefighters doesn't expire until 2016, and if, somehow, Ouellette were successful in rolling back salaries in a future contract, "it would have an absolutely detrimental effect on the fire department."
"About 150 firefighters would retire immediately, leading to a large loss of senior staff, and second, we would lose many of our people. They'd go elsewhere."