Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Unpaid holiday break a tough sell

But measure could save city $1.5 million

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Mayor Sam Katz is dreaming of a Wyatt Christmas -- just like the ones Gary Filmon used to know.

Back in the '90s, Manitoba's mild-mannered premier wound up lending his name to a cost-saving measure that involved unpaid days off for provincial employees.

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The involuntary rest days became known as Filmon Fridays and were never quite embraced by the provincial workforce. But the measure was successful enough to provide inspiration for city council finance boss Russ Wyatt, who eagerly endorsed a similar plan for the City of Winnipeg.

In June, the Transcona councillor rolled out a proposal for radical spending cuts that included what he enthusiastically called Wyatt Weekends -- unpaid summer days off for city employees.

Wyatt initially surmised this could save Winnipeg as much as $14 million. Given his penchant for theatrics, most of his council colleagues thought he was bluffing.

But when the city's spending plans were published Friday, a version of Wyatt Weekends wound up on the page. The city is now pursuing a plan to send workers home for 3.5 days between Christmas and New Year's next year as part of an effort to save $1.5 million.

It's not exactly clear how Wyatt Christmas will work. The plan on the table calls for "non-essential" city workers to be sent home unpaid next holiday season. While that certainly means smaller paycheques for 16 members of council, it's not clear what other city employees will be considered non-essential.

Obviously, firefighters, police and paramedics aren't going home. But the task of figuring out who else isn't essential will place politicians in conflict with Winnipeg's largest union, which has a labour deal that includes a job-security clause.

In other words, it isn't clear if Winnipeg should be dreaming about Wyatt Christmas, which is only the latest in a series of hope-and-a-prayer cost-saving measures considered by the city in recent years.

In 2010, the city banked on winning a tax dispute with Manitoba Hydro. But only half the expected $10.6 million materialized, placing the city in a deficit position at the end of the year.

The previous year, the city tried to balance the books through a nebulous effort to find $11.5 million worth of ephemeral "efficiencies." That effort was achieved by laying off 80 professionals and other skilled employees.

Another 20 middle-management cuts are planned this year as part of an effort to save $2 million, on top of a plan to save $14.1 million through "vacancy management," which involves choosing not to fill vacant positions.

Thanks to years of "vacancy management," it'll be tough to convince city workers to go unpaid at Christmas. In the public works department, for example, employees who volunteer to go home under an existing, optional furlough program are told to forget it because there are too few people around to do essential work.

Winnipeg's mayor, however, remains hopeful. "There could be a lot of members of CUPE who would like to have that time away with their families at the Christmas season," Katz told reporters about Wyatt Christmas.

In the grand scheme of things, gambling on $1.5 million worth of revenue isn't crazy. If Wyatt Christmas fails, even a modest year-end surplus will easily backfill the missing money.

Other aspects of this year's budget are far more irresponsible, such as a plan to siphon off $2 million from the Winnipeg Parking Authority -- a practice council used to condemn.

The city also plans to raid reserve accounts to the tune of $10.1 million, raise almost $15 million through a property-tax hike and rake in $4.5 million from higher fees for everything from getting a licence to work as an escort to placing a memorial at a city cemetery.

Yes, the city has a tax on every conceivable moment. Wyatt Christmas is just the start.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 30, 2013 A7

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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