City, province do taxpayers disservice

'New reality' on infrastructure funding a poor plan

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Winnipeggers might have breathed a sigh of relief when they heard news out of city hall this past Friday that their taxes were not rising by an additional 10 per cent — an idea that had been floated by Mayor Brian Bowman earlier, when news of a funding dispute with the provincial government broke.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/03/2019 (1308 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeggers might have breathed a sigh of relief when they heard news out of city hall this past Friday that their taxes were not rising by an additional 10 per cent — an idea that had been floated by Mayor Brian Bowman earlier, when news of a funding dispute with the provincial government broke.

If so, they have been lulled into a false sense of “good news.” The real story is much more alarming and disturbing.

The fact is that the funding dispute that has left the city of Winnipeg grappling with a $40-million hole in 2018’s road-repair budget will resound for many years, impairing the transportation network upon which our economy grows.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman (right) and city council need to stand up to Premier Brian Pallister’s insistence they accept a ‘new reality’ around infrastructure funding.

Here’s how:

To recap, this past Friday, Bowman said the $40-million shortfall to the city’s street-renewal budget will be spread out evenly over the next two years. Gone is $40 million, off the top. But further, because Winnipeg can get no commitment that the provincial government will sign a new funding deal to cover the next five years (2019-23), the forecasted street-repair program is cut by a total of $174.4 million.

These agreements are not the matter of casual phone calls, chats and handshakes. They are laid out in signed documents. And, quite simply, it is outrageous that after the decades of debate and experience we have had with infrastructure funding agreements, we are watching this play out in 2019.

If the city’s version is correct, and the province is trying to rewrite or re-interpret the spirit, letter or meaning of the agreement signed five to six years ago (resulting in the $40-million shortfall), then Manitoba should be embarrassed. All taxpayers should hold their provincial leaders accountable. Our economy — our ability to move people to jobs and goods to market — is on the line.

Yet, Winnipeggers should be just as worried about the messages that came out of city hall. It sounded as if their mayor and council are folding their cards. Bowman spoke of “accepting this new reality.” That, too, is unacceptable.

The mayor and council have the responsibility to stand up and speak out for 750,000-plus residents who, if the city is correct, are clearly being wronged by the provincial government. City hall should be taking this message, and this dispute, to the public and rallying the electorate to draw the line in the political sand with Broadway.

If they don’t do that, then Winnipeggers should wonder what really is going on — whether their municipal leaders are playing games over that same funding agreement. And, if that turns out to be the case, we have a huge problem at city hall.

The implications of this mess go well beyond a $40-million shortfall. Municipalities simply do not have the fiscal capacity to raise the revenues required to provide critical services to their residents — they rely on cost-shared deals and funding agreements with provincial and federal governments to do that. Infrastructure is just the highest profile of such services, because it is a multi-year capital expense.

The public should also keep this fact in context: the provincial government has slashed the highways budget by 55 per cent, and the rural municipal roads program by 85 per cent.

Now the city is proposing to cut its roads program by 32 per cent in 2019 alone. That scale of infrastructure-budget mangling sets all Manitoba taxpayers up for exponentially higher repair costs “down the road.”

It also damages the livelihoods of women and men who work in the construction industry upon whose salaries their families depend. Fundamentally, cutting infrastructure investment undermines our municipal and provincial economy in so many ways — Manitoba’s business community, with a single voice, has spoken out about the harm of these cuts repeatedly since 2016.

This municipal-provincial dispute represents a pivotal moment in governmental relations. Winnipeggers are watching, wondering if the mayor and council will lead, stand firm for principle and be resolute, or cower to political bullying and simply pass on the costs in higher taxes, higher debt and reduced services.

If the mayor and city council accept this “new reality,” make no mistake that Broadway will see its way clear to mess with budgets with impunity.

Finally, more than perhaps any recent civic-provincial spat, this one screams why the city and province must enter into a new fiscal deal to rework their roles, responsibilities and access to revenue streams to address each government’s needs. Municipalities need firmer ground to generate revenues to balance this unpredictable, often unhealthy dependency on provincial relations.

It’s time for Winnipeggers to call the mayor, their councillors, the premier and all Winnipeg MLAs with a simple message: “Enough of this! Fix it!.”

Chris Lorenc is president of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association and Western Canada Roadbuilders & Heavy Construction Association.

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