Winnipeg emergency service departments have been ordered to offer new options to cover multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls, after council’s finance committee delayed their requests to fill the gap with the city’s so-called 'rainy day' fund.
In two Friday votes, the committee ordered the Winnipeg Police Service to report back next month with options for alternate funding sources to cover a projected $7.3-million overrun.
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service was later asked to do the same for its predicted $3.4-million shortfall.
WPS Chief Danny Smyth told the committee finding another source to cover the expected year-end deficit is not feasible so close to the end of 2021.
"There is no other source of funding to draw to, no other options to come back here with… That’s simply unrealistic," said Smyth.
When asked directly what the impact would be, the police chief responded: "I think it would mean service cuts."
When emergency services departments exceed council-approved budgets, they typically ask the finance committee to cover the cost through the city’s general revenues or the rainy day fund (if a city-wide deficit is expected). Those requests have been routinely approved over the past few years.
Police blame this year’s overrun largely on pension changes, since an actuarial assessment found the service's pension plan now falls $5.8-million short.
In addition, WPS was tasked with finding $6.1 million of in-year savings in the 2021 budget, largely to cover cost-cutting measures expected in a police pension overhaul. Those pension changes were cancelled after an arbitrator ruled they would breach collective agreements.
At this point, WPS has fallen about $1.5 million short of the council-ordered efficiencies.
Smyth told the Free Press Friday’s alternate funding request was "irregular," since the Winnipeg Police Board is legally required to guide how police spend their budget, not council or its committees.
WPS deputy chief Art Stannard noted police couldn’t control the actuarial change expected to cause most of the shortfall: "This new pension amount, it’s not our fault."
WFPS Chief Christian Schmidt said he also expects his department’s shortfall would require cuts, if the city doesn’t ultimately opt to cover the overrun.
"It will revolve around service and reduction in service. So that is what we will look at… This is public safety, so these are important discussions," Schmidt said.
The "very small" window of time to reassess budget options will make the process difficult, he added.
WFPS said its projected $3.4-million shortfall was created mainly by increased overtime costs, due to staff vacancies.
Coun. Sherri Rollins, who called for the reports at finance committee, said she simply wants to ensure proper scrutiny over taxpayer dollars.
"Without an option or alternative (to cover the costs), it robs the public and it robs the committee of the ability to consider that issue further," said Rollins.
The councillor said recent public calls to defund the police are leading her to ask the service more financial questions.
The finance committee voted unanimously to order the WFPS report. The police vote passed 3-1, after Couns. Jason Schreyer, John Orlikow and Rollins supported it; Coun. Scott Gillingham opposed.
Gillingham told the committee the timeline for police changes would pose a significant challenge.
"This report would… come back mid-November. That would give the service six weeks to come up with ($7.3 million)," he said.
Gillingham later supported the WFPS motion. He told media the finance committee could at least act on that information, while it lacks the jurisdiction to dictate police operations.
Both reports are expected at the Nov. 12 finance committee meeting.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.