Winnipeggers will get their first look at city hall’s 2019 budget Friday, where they will learn if Mayor Brian Bowman was issuing empty threats for a possible 9.4 per cent property tax increase as a result of the funding dispute with the provincial government.
The preliminary 2019 operating and capital budgets will be tabled Friday at a special meeting of Executive Policy Committee.
While Bowman had campaigned in the 2018 civic election to keep the property tax increase at 2.3 per cent, he told reporters twice this week that an even larger tax increase is one option to deal with the funding shortfall caused by the Pallister government.
The funding dispute has taken public attention away from key questions city hall faces on how it plans to manage a growing city.
Bowman said the $40 million in question — money the city says the Pallister government owes for 2018 road projects that it refuses to pay — is the equivalent of an additional 7.1 per cent property tax increase (every one per cent increase in property taxes raises about $5.64 million).
While briefing reporters Thursday, Bowman wouldn’t rule out a property tax increase of 9.4 per cent but no one at city hall believes that will happen.
But how city hall will make up the $40-million shortfall remains to be seen. Bowman has already eliminated some possible avenues — council in December agreed to forgo the annual Jan. 1 increase to transit fares. And on Thursday council agreed to freeze residential water and sewer charges for 2019 at last year’s rates.
Bowman said other options to make up the shortfall include scaling back infrastructure spending, most likely on roads, or borrowing.
But city hall is already pretty close to its borrowing limit and wouldn’t be able to borrow much of that $40 million, especially if it wants to proceed with widening Kenaston Boulevard or constructing a new Arlington Bridge.
Council under Bowman has spent a record amount on road maintenance — $116 million alone in 2018 – with the same amount previously projected for this year and more in subsequent years. Will road spending become a casualty from the funding dispute.
For accounting purposes only, council could roll back some of that road funding for 2019 knowing that the spending could be bumped up if the funding dispute with the province is resolved in the city’s favour.
The budget will also reveal the answers to other questions:
• Will the budget include spending all or a part of the $16.5 million raised to date through the imposition of the impact fee imposed on developers? While council voted to keep all fee revenue from the new charge on residential development in the suburban fringes in a reserve account pending the resolution of a court challenge from the building industry, Bowman wants to start spending that money to offset the costs of some suburban infrastructure projects, particularly new recreational facilities.
• What cuts will Police Chief Danny Smyth force the Winnipeg Police Service to endure to keep its budget increase under inflation?
• Will there be a plan and committed funding for rebuilding the city’s recreational and leisure facilities?
• Will there be a plan and committed funding for looking after new parks and green spaces, both in new subdivisions and in existing neighbourhoods?
• How will city hall spend Winnipeg Transit’s $13.6 million surplus from 2018. Bowman wants more heated bus shelters, but transit advocates have called for more reliable service with the purchase of more buses and to begin a major conversion to electric buses.
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.
Council will debate and vote on the 2019 budget at a special meeting March 20.
Mayor Brian Bowman and members of his executive policy committee (which consists of the chairs of council's standing policy committees) are charged by legislation to draft a preliminary budget, which will be released publicly Friday at 1:30 p.m.
Between Friday and the special council vote, council's standing policy committees and the Winnipeg Police Board will be given departmental budget presentations from officials under their purview, where the committees can make recommendations on the budget plan. The public is allowed to offer comments and recommendations on the department budgets at that time.
Executive policy committee will hold one public meeting specifically to hear public concerns and a week later EPC will make its final budget recommendations, which will go to council.
2019 Budget dates
• March 1, 1:30 p.m. — EPC tables 2019 preliminary budget
• March 7, 9 a.m. — Environment committee
• March 7, 1 p.m. — Public Works
• March 8, 9:30 a.m. — Winnipeg Police Board
• March 8, 1 p.m. — Protection, community services and parks
• March 11, 9 a.m. — Innovation
• March 11, 1 p.m. — Property and development, heritage and downtown development
• March 13, 9 a.m. — Executive policy committee; hearing public delegations only
• March 19, 9 a.m. — Executive policy committee; final recommendations to council
• March 20, 9:30 a.m. — Special meeting of council to debate and vote on the 2019 budget