Mayoral candidate Gord Steeves is promising to freeze Winnipeg's property taxes -- and claims rival Judy Wasylycia-Leis is trying to bankrupt city families with tax hikes of her own.
In a series of policy announcements over the past two weeks, the lawyer and former St. Vital councillor -- a federal Liberal who became a provincial Tory -- has been trying to define himself as a suburban-friendly, right-wing populist.
This process continued at a Wednesday campaign event where Steeves pledged to freeze property taxes until at least 2019 -- and accused Wasylycia-Leis of "bankrupting Winnipeg families" with her own promise to hike taxes at the combined rate of inflation and municipal population growth.
"If elected, I will bring to council each year a budget that freezes residential taxes for my first term in office," Steeves said on the lawn of a River Park South home. "Yes, it is going to be hard, but everything about being mayor over the course of the next four years is going to be hard."
From 1998 until 2011, city council either reduced or froze the total pool of taxes it collected from existing Winnipeg properties. Though the tax freeze ended in 2012, Steeves said he could reinstate it without cutting services or shedding jobs.
He said a one per cent property-tax hike, which would generate $5.1 million of new revenue, would not be a significant source of new revenue, considering the city spends what he said was $1.5 billion every year.
"We've reached a point where property taxation doesn't even play an appreciable role in our community," Steeves said.
The city budget was $1.34 billion in 2014, when you combine the $962-million operating budget and the $379-million capital budget. Property taxes, at $511 million, served as the largest single source of revenue for this spending, . Nonetheless, Steeves said it would be petty to hike property taxes one or two points just to raise an additional $5 million or $10 million. He said he could generate far more revenue by selling city-owned golf courses, the Millennium Library Parkade and other city-owned assets.
"That is going to be the path I go down," he said. "If I am successful in realizing even some of the revenue that I expect to realize through the divesting of assets, it will pay for a 20-year tax increase."
Steeves said Winnipeggers suffer from a high overall tax burden, though he acknowledged the municipal portion of those taxes is low. Keeping them down would attract more residents and increase Winnipeg's property-tax revenue without a hike, he said.
In a chart, he said a Wasylycia-Leis promise to raise taxes by about 12 per cent over four years would threaten the financial well-being of Winnipeg families. That claim is reminiscent of a Sam Katz re-election-campaign robocall in 2010, when the city's current mayor warned Winnipeggers they might lose their homes if Wasylycia-Leis were elected.
"Sam Katz did that to me and immediately broke his promise the first chance he got," Wasylycia-Leis, a former NDP MP and MLA said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "It's the same old-style politics. I'm very disappointed Gord Steeves would stoop to this."
Other mayoral candidates were equally unimpressed. Lawyer Brian Bowman said freezing property taxes for more than decade is what led to Winnipeg's infrastructure woes, while university administrator Robert-Falcon Ouellette called Steeves' pledge "pandering to the lowest possible denominator."
Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck thanked Steeves for "endorsing her campaign," saying she promised to freeze property taxes at her May campaign launch. At the time, Havixbeck said she would prefer a tax freeze.
Steeves denied his campaign rhetoric was alarmist and wouldn't say whether he truly believed Wasylycia-Leis would bankrupt Winnipeg families.
"I'm concerned about her level of spending," he said, insisting his campaign pledges are genuine and not mere attempts to position himself to the right of the other candidates. "I believe in it. You can put me wherever you like on the political perspective."
He also claimed no city workers lost their jobs during the 11 years he sat on council. In fact, 38 city professionals received layoff notices in 2009 as part of a Steeves-endorsed effort to shed 80 middle-management positions.
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