Winnipeg is literally facing dark times, officials involved in budget presentations revealed Wednesday at city hall.
The public works director said a proposed freeze on the street lighting budget means the City of Winnipeg will have to turn off an increasing number of lights over the next four years.
Winnipeg Transit said an imposed two per cent cap on its budget will mean the elimination of dozens of positions and the low-income bus pass might never see the light of day, along with a host of service cuts.
The budget prospects left Coun. Matt Allard, chairman of the public works committee and a public transit advocate, looking rattled and at a loss to explain how city hall can dig its way out of the financial situation.
"I don’t like the idea we have to cut front-line services. However, where is the revenue going to come from?" Allard told reporters.
"What are we to do if we don’t like what’s being presented? I don’t like what’s being presented, but we have financial imperatives."
Mayor Brian Bowman and the executive policy committee have imposed caps on budget increases: police and Transit at two per cent, and public works at 1.5 per cent. Similar caps have been placed on other departments.
Wednesday’s committee session was the first of three days for Transit and public works. The committee meets again Nov. 28 to get feedback from the public to the budget plans.
Water and waste, and property, planning and development present their budgets today.
Jim Berezowsky, director of public works, said he was told to freeze the street lighting budget even though utility rates continue to rise 2.5 to four per cent annually, explaining the only way to cope is to turn off more lights across the city.
Berezowsky said the city has about 76,000 street lights. To live with the imposed budget, the city will have to turn off 2,800 in 2021, 6,000 in 2022, and 9,500 in 2023.
He said determining which lights would be turned off will be done in consultation with the Winnipeg Police Service to minimize the effect on traffic and pedestrian safety and incidents of criminal activity.
The public works department seems to have gotten off lucky with the budget situation, as most of the 2.33 per cent property tax increase is dedicated to local and regional street improvements.
Transit is not so lucky. While officials are prepared to roll out a low-income bus pass, as directed by city council, they’ve not accounted for the accompanying loss in fare revenue — expected to be $1.3 million in 2020, $3.2 million in 2021, and $5 million annually thereafter.
Allard said unless the city can find the money, the pass program won’t go ahead.
The committee was told to stay within the budget increase, Transit had to cut a combined $5.6 million from its operating budget and another $12.8 million from its capital budget for 2020.
The cuts proposed by Transit include:
● Elimination of 282.5 full-time equivalent staff positions between 2020 and 2023;
● Cancelling the construction of additional heated bus shelters;
● Cancelling the free downtown Spirit bus service;
● Reducing the frequency of bus shelter cleanings and bus interior cleanings;
● Reducing operating hours, stopping service on weekday evenings and Saturday nights at 12:15 a.m. instead of the current 1:38 a.m.; peak afternoon weekday service will end at 5:45 p.m. instead of the current 6:30 p.m.;
● Squeezing three more years out of bus life expectancy, leaving vehicles on the road for 21 years instead of 18.
Functional Transit Winnipeg, a transit advocacy group, later said it was shocked by the proposed cuts.
"Service running later into the evenings is necessary to support shift workers and help individuals get home safely," spokesman Derek Koop said. "This is a clear step backward for riders and for our city, and leaves us wondering what the future of transit looks like in Winnipeg."
Transit based its budget projections to include the resumption of the annual five-cent fare increase during that four-year period.
Officials said the annual fare increase generates about $5.8 million in revenue, if there is no loss in ridership — an amount that would cover the budget shortfall for the first year only. Similar increases, and more, would be needed in subsequent years.
Greg Ewankiw, director of Winnipeg Transit, told reporters the cuts outlined at the committee would have to be followed with a series of still-to-be determined cuts within its operating budget to stay within the four-year plan: $5.5 million in 2021, $8.4 million in 2022, and $9.2 million in 2023.
"We know that’s a significant impact to our customers," Ewankiw said.
Allard said even while the proposed cuts to front-line services at both Transit and public works is disappointing, he praised department officials for staying within the imposed budget guidelines.
"We’re going to either take what’s being offered (from the departments) or find ways of funding these programs," Allard said. "We’re just at the beginning of the process. There’ll be delegations (at the public session) and many conversations."
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.