City councillors have been getting an earful from community residents this week about their opposition to proposed department service cuts. Thursday was Mayor Brian Bowman’s turn.
At a special meeting of the executive policy committee, the mayor was repeatedly told his pledge to cap annual property taxes to a 2.33 per cent increase for the next four years is unreasonable, given the financial pressures facing Winnipeg.
"We have the lowest property taxes in Canada and the lowest per capita spending in Canada, and that’s just not sustainable," said Lynne Fernandez, from the Manitoba office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, referencing the city’s budget books.
Fernandez said city hall should consider a 7.33 per cent property tax increase, in combination with other revenue-generating moves and spending more wisely.
A 7.33 per cent tax increase "would surely allow you to at least maintain spending in community programming, our urban forest and public transit," Fernandez said, explaining it would increase the tax bill on an average home by $150.
Fernandez also said city hall relies too much on property taxes and it should consider alternative revenue sources, including a tax on surface parking lots, a commuter tax and aggressive borrowing to finance infrastructure projects.
Council’s standing committee have been dealing with the departments under their jurisdiction. The committee chairs on EPC had been given program cuts from the administrative, corporate finance and other support services largely based at the 510 Main St. campus and saw the budget targets appear to be having a minimal effect on their operations.
The most dramatic effect at 510 Main is on the city’s communications services, where the 311 division will eliminate 10 full-time equivalent positions between 2020 and 2023, including the 311 counter service in the administration building. In dollar terms, the communications and customer services department will cut almost $1.5 million in spending from its 2019 budget, a reduction of 17 per cent.
Jessica Praznik, from the Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, said she would gladly accept a $150 property tax increase if it meant "libraries and swimming pools would be able to stay open."
Gord Delbridge, president of CUPE 500, which represents several thousand civic workers across all departments, was critical of a budget process that targeted services valued by the community and failed to consider alternative revenue sources.
"We feel disrespected for being left out of the process from the start," Delbridge said, adding union members can contribute to a better understanding of proposed service and program cuts.
Delbridge said all civic departments have proposed to eliminate staff positions without specifying what positions would be eliminated, adding it leaves impressions those cuts are "arbitrary."
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.