Winnipeg city council’s most powerful committee wants to renew the U-Pass at a higher price point, cancel a cut to Sunday library hours, and restore some funding for public art.
The executive policy committee voted unanimously Thursday in favour of those amendments to the 2020-23 budget — a decision Mayor Brian Bowman says reflects feedback from the public.
"For those that think the (preliminary) budget is cast in stone and we’re not open to change, (this shows) we were listening," said Bowman.
All changes would require final council approval. City council is slated to cast its final budget vote Friday.
The new amendments include a call to study an up-to-$50-million, three-year library and recreation investment strategy, which could begin in 2021 and rely on provincial infrastructure funds. The mayor said many details of that initiative are still being worked out.
If approved, the changes would reverse the planned cancellation of the U-Pass, instead extending it for four years and expanding it to serve Red River College. EPC proposes to offer the post-secondary Transit pass to all full-time RRC, University of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg students at a price of $200 per semester in 2020.
That exceeds the $172.70/semester one student leader suggested riders are willing to pay.
Bowman said the $200 fee would ensure Winnipeg Transit’s costs are covered while still offering students a 50 per cent discount from regular adult fares.
Budget amendments also propose to preserve Sunday library hours and reduce a planned 50 per cent cut to leisure guide programming to 14 per cent.
The city would also provide $125,000 in each of the next four years for public art, reversing a plan to cut that budget entirely in 2021.
The changes are partly funded by $3.3 million the city expects to save over the next four years, due to Manitoba's announced one percentage-point reduction in the provincial sales tax.
"I think there should be some credit to our provincial partners on this," said Bowman.
The city also plans to free up property tax dollars by having its sewage disposal utility pay $1.5 million by 2023 for Winnipeg’s sustainability office (responsible for ensuring a climate lens is applied to all city departments’ decisions).
The mayor said it shouldn’t be seen as finding a new way to drain sewage revenues into general city coffers.
"The most significant environmental initiative right now that the city is undertaking is the ($1.8-billion) north end sewage treatment plant (upgrade). So much of the activity that is happening right now… from a sustainability standpoint is within the utility," said Bowman.
The reversal of some cuts drew a mixed response from those who fought to prevent them.
The University of Manitoba Students’ Union welcomed the chance to save the U-Pass program, but its elected leader wasn’t immediately sure if students would agree to the higher tab.
"This is a steep increase, and it’s outside of what we were authorized as an executive to approve," said Jakob Sanderson, UMSU president.
Sanderson said his board could approve the rate, reject it, or send it to a student referendum.
Some notable cuts remain in Winnipeg’s budget, including a 10 per cent trim to most grants, service-hour reductions on 14 Winnipeg Transit routes and the elimination of the Downtown Spirit bus.
A cut that prevents libraries from staying open past 8 p.m on weekdays also remains in place.
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The executive policy committee is also proposing the following additional changes to the city’s 2020-23 budget. All require final council approval:
— Have city staff seek explore whether a third party could own and/or operate the Terry Sawchuk Arena, which has been temporarily closed due to mould issues. The budget had left the arena’s potential reopening undecided;
— Add a $140,000 grant to Trees Winnipeg in 2020 to lead the One Million Tree Challenge, which aims to add one million trees to the cityscape over the next two decades;
— Add $1.6 million over four years to hire two new business continuity officers to boost emergency preparedness;
— Devote $3.7 million to the redevelopment of the West Kildonan Library.