Mayoral candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette rolled out a poorly considered policy promise to cut city expenses, targeting salaries of senior management, the cost of police overtime and hiring practices. There is room for bringing a more rational approach to expenses, particularly pay rates in the civil service, but Mr. Ouellette's promise will bring little relief to a city budget under pressure.
Mr. Ouellette wants the compensation of senior managers not covered by union agreements trimmed, to share the pinch of austerity at city hall. He would use a paring knife instead of a chain saw to do this; maybe a five per cent cut to salaries above $80,000, he posited to reporters earlier this month.
Mr. Ouellette is talking about a relative paucity of employees. Most of the city's senior managers and professionals are covered by agreements negotiated by their respective associations, and the contracts' language and terms roughly mirror those of unionized workers.
The cut, then, would amount to a symbolic gesture.
Mr. Ouellette's rationale for the promise was curious -- he made $80,000 as the University of Manitoba's director of aboriginal focus programs and the salary suited him so it seemed a good place to start the cuts. He may be happy with such a salary as mayor -- less than half what the city's top politician now earns -- but asking everyone else to be similarly happy with "good enough" is an arbitrary and risky approach to staffing a modern, professional organization.
A major municipality competes with the private sector and other large public bodies in recruiting senior officials and professionals. A cursory comparison with senior managers at, for example, the City of Regina shows Winnipeg's compensation rates are not generally out of scope. If Winnipeg's mayor rolls back administrator salaries, he or she may find it difficult to staunch the bleeding as highly skilled managers find better prospects elsewhere.
Mr. Ouellette was dismayed to see media pull apart his promise and focus on the salary component on the policy plank. His intent, he said, was much broader: Police overtime could be slashed by 80 per cent. Insisting no officer attend traffic court on overtime is likely to cause trickle-down headaches that delay court dates and back up dockets.
Looking for efficiencies is a worthy pursuit, although Mayor Sam Katz, too, thought he could halt the practice of hiring consultants to do work he was sure the civil service was capable of handling. The record shows the city continues to spend large sums on external analysis and work.
Going after "inflated" civil-servant wages and waste at city hall is a populist position on the campaign trail. What Winnipeggers need to hear from all the candidates is how city expenses can be reasonably managed against the city's ability to look for new sources of revenue. The province is not going to transfer 70 per cent of the PST revenue to Winnipeg's coffers each year. That does not mean the mayor and council can't keep the heat on for a dedicated tax of its own, so real progress can be made against the infrastructure deficit.
And a cost-cutting promise that exempts the wages of unionized employees from scrutiny is illogical -- any mayor looking to keep expenses down will run up against the wage hikes awarded annually to employee groups, along with the cost of such things as pension plans that allow very early retirement.
The police force has seen its ranks grow in recent years.
The default position in arbitration that routinely moves Winnipeg officers at par with counterparts in other western cities puts unreasonable pressure on this city to match the wages found in richer provinces.
These are the finer, complicated details that a mayor and council would address to bring city expenses to heel.