Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City hall requires leadership

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Three weeks into the campaign period, seven Winnipeggers have registered to run for mayor in the October election. So far, the candidates have kept their platforms close to the chest; it is a long campaign period and there is risk in announcing too early key policies that Winnipeggers may forget as politics gives way to the familiar distractions of summer.

Voters, however, should be forming an idea of what they want from city council in the next four years. And that begins with the kind of leader council needs.

The recent arrival of municipal property tax statements in the mail highlights the challenge before the next council: the city's ability to raise sufficient revenues to invest in the basic services and public works expected of a modern, competitive metropolis.

The issue is money, but part of the problem is leadership. The interminable debate over rapid transit -- what kind, what route, how much to spend -- illustrates the challenge.

So far Winnipeg has built a mere 3.6 kilometres of its first bus rapid transit corridor. That stub has been orphaned by conflict, delay and a lack of unified effort. The turmoil over how to complete the corridor's remaining seven kilometres to the University of Manitoba makes one despair for the vision of a city-wide integrated system capable of enticing commuters to leave the car at home.

A strong mayor capable of corralling consensus from the diverse, often conflicting agendas of 15 councillors could have prevented such an embarrassment, moved purposefully on the file. But Mayor Sam Katz, despite the considerable power that rests in his office, has proven incapable of the job. He himself was dismissive of rapid transit initially, then fumbled with his vacillations over whether it would be better to go with bus or rail.

Rail is many times more expensive to contemplate. Winnipeg's downtown-Jubilee bus rapid transit route cost $138 million. Council has since been mired in disagreement over the scope of the next leg to the U of M, now estimated at $600 million and involving underpasses and sewer and drainage works. Ottawa, watching the melee, has not signed on to its share of the costs.

Meanwhile, Calgary's massive investment in its rail route was budgeted at $700 million, and came in at $1.5 billion, or $195 million per kilometre.

To even contemplate going rail would require heavy lifting, both on an integrated transportation strategy and how it would be paid for. Right now, city hall's operating budget, starved of revenue, would prove anemic for the job.

After more than a decade of frozen property taxes, Mayor Katz and council have bowed to the reality of the need to hit up taxpayers for more cash. The winter's snow-plowing budget alone proved the point, and the potholes left in the wake of a late thaw are symptomatic of the city's $1.8-billion infrastructure headache. But more than 40 per cent of the city's spending goes to police and fire/paramedic budgets.

Squeezing a bit of blood each year from taxpayers cannot feed this monster. Yet raising taxes is a hard sell in Winnipeg because, unlike other municipalities, up to half of the property tax bill goes to school boards, which have their own levy for education.

The heavy lifting for school financing should be borne by the province but that argument has fallen flat on Broadway because the government now only bears 65 per cent of the cost of schools, and would rather use the treasury to fund ingratiating education tax credits to property owners.

Winnipeg's next mayor has to confront the province on the issue of revenue. The city needs room to raise taxes, which requires lifting school taxes off property owners. Alternatively, the province should finally concede to the logic of giving Winnipeg its own consumption tax, fuelled by economic activity -- a percentage of retail, alcohol or gas sales.

Both ideas have been consistently rebuffed by the NDP government, which nonetheless raised the PST last year to serve its own interests.

But the prospect of a change in power on Broadway in the next provincial election can open new opportunities, renewed chance for negotiation to get Winnipeg out of the financial morass. That will require strong leadership, the election of an individual who can muster council into a cohesive force and use that to impress upon the province the real power inherent in a city that comprises 70 per cent of Manitoba's electorate.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2014 A16


Updated on Saturday, May 24, 2014 at 9:20 AM CDT: Winnipeg has built 3.6 kilometres of its first bus rapid transit corridor.

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