Winnipeg city hall’s foray into a four-year budget plan has been marked with the possibility of staff layoffs and controversial cuts to essential services — but the next step is where the hard decisions will be made, Mayor Brian Bowman says.
Bowman told reporters Monday all department recommendations, and those from standing committees and the public, will now be measured by the 2020-23 budget working group, which consists of his executive policy committee, along with deputy mayor Coun. Markus Chambers and acting deputy mayor Coun. Vivian Santos.
"You shouldn’t presume each of the decisions that will be made but, yes, there will be difficult decisions to make. Which ones will be accepted, and which ones will not be accepted, that remains to be seen." - Mayor Brian Bowman
The mayor said he’s committed to holding the property tax increase to 2.33 per cent for each of the next four years, and his focus on the budget remains on curtailing department spending. He refused to admit some staff layoffs and the closure of pools, libraries and arenas is inevitable.
"You shouldn’t presume each of the decisions that will be made but, yes, there will be difficult decisions to make. Which ones will be accepted, and which ones will not be accepted, that remains to be seen," Bowman said. "To suggest it’s pre-determined at this stage would not be accurate."
Bowman said in previous years, the proposals for service cuts put forth during the past four weeks would have been made privately during sessions between the budget working group and department heads, and used to develop the draft budget.
This time around, the department proposals were made publicly, and the budget working group will not only consider them but also the dozens of presentations made by individuals and organizations in response, along with the recommendations of the standing committees.
"The objective of this first phase of the budget process this year was increased engagement, increased openness and transparency than ever before," the mayor said. "I think the public is certainly better apprised of some of the difficult choices we’re going to have to make as we bring forward a budget for council’s consideration in the new year."
However, critics such as Couns. Janice Lukes and Kevin Klein said the concept of openness and transparency was hollow, adding the process was rushed, with little time for councillors or the public to review the department proposals. The departments only offered up the cuts they supported, making it almost impossible for anyone to suggest alternatives of their own, opponents said.
Only Winnipeg Transit and the innovation department escaped the first stage with support from their respective standing committees. The public works committee recommended the budget working group rely on Transit’s accumulated surplus to avoid all service cuts and staff layoffs proposed by Transit officials.
The innovation committee also wants to avoid any cuts to the department but, unlike public works, was unable to find any offsetting revenue to accomplish the goal.
The next stage will follow city hall’s traditional budget process: the budget working group will release a draft budget (tentatively sometime in February), which will be scrutinized by the standing committees.
The public will get another opportunity to comment on department budgets to the standing committees, which will use that feedback to make recommendations to the EPC.
EPC will review those submissions and present a final budget in late March for council’s consideration.
Bowman said he expects some horse trading among the members of the budget working group as they shift cuts from one department to save services from another department.
"If you’re going to bring a budget into balance, you are going to inevitably make decisions about the allocation of resources between departments and specific programs and services, absolutely. We will now look at that."
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.