A lot of business has been conducted on golf courses over the years. Ironically, the question has arisen whether the city itself should be in the business of golf at all. It’s an important question, one that needs to be expanded to encompass all civic programs and services.
For the past two decades, municipal governments have grappled with the downloading of responsibilities by higher levels of government and an expanding list of urban issues. Successive mayors and councils have made strong arguments that our city doesn’t have the appropriate revenue model to address the infrastructure deficit and to support current and emerging public services.
The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has supported the city in its calls for a "new deal" or "fair share" from the province. But there has been little provincial movement on any fundamental review of taxation powers or revenue sharing, and it’s likely there will be even less in the foreseeable future.
Where does the city go from here? A recent Probe Research poll commissioned by the chamber provides the answer: a fundamental review of the city’s core mandate and activities.
Eighty-one per cent of Winnipeggers polled agree the city should carefully review the services it provides and reduce funding on lower-priority services.
Further, conducting this core-services review was identified as the most important option (47 per cent) for how the city should address its budget challenges, ahead of seeking more funding from other levels of government (35 per cent), increasing business taxes (13 per cent) and raising residential property taxes (four per cent).
The city’s 2019 budget includes a commitment by council to review service obligations under the City of Winnipeg charter. It needs to go further. It must entail a community-wide conversation to determine the core mandate of civic government, what citizens expect from the city to meet that mandate, key priorities and how we’re all going to pay for it.
Some recent developments offer evidence of why such an exercise is required.
In February, a report to the property and development committee analyzed the possibility of the city paying for insurance, taxes and utilities for organizations that rent space — often at just $1 annually — in city-owned buildings. Subsidizing these organizations is estimated to cost $3.6 million annually.
Many of these organizations, including daycares, offer valuable services. But does the city’s mandate require it to be in the daycare business, which is a provincial responsibility, or is that scope creep? And if the answer is that the city is paying capital and operating costs for daycares, then the city is in the daycare business.
The province recently agreed to cover all of the city’s direct costs with respect to ambulance services. It might be better to ask why the city is providing ambulance service at all. Health care is a provincial responsibility, and patients are transported to hospitals operated by the province. Shouldn’t the service be provided by the province or regional health authority?
To the question of golf courses: while participation rates and the annual number of rounds played have been decreasing for years, the city continues to own numerous golf courses that require millions in annual funding and capital improvements to remain viable. The subsidy issue aside, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that owning and operating golf courses falls outside a city’s core responsibilities, especially when so many privately owned alternatives exist.
The conversation will be difficult. Ask 100 people to identify the city’s core mandate, and you’ll get 101 different answers. Each city service will be a top priority depending on a person’s specific needs or perspectives. Yet, if we want a city focused on doing the essential things well, operating efficiently and effectively, it’s a necessary step. The correct path is rarely the easy one.
There are potential savings from the city getting out of offering non-core services. However, the greatest benefit is the ability for council and administration to focus their attention, energy and resources on the services essential to meeting the city’s core responsibilities.
Part of the challenge has been the "safety net" role civic governments have allowed themselves to play in response to higher levels of government offloading their responsibilities. Each time a civic government steps in to fill a void created by other governments, it feeds mission creep and dilutes the city’s ability to strategically invest in its core responsibilities.
In our daily lives, we juggle family, work, friends and other needs. We jokingly wish for more hours in the day or to be able to clone ourselves. But there aren’t, and we can’t (yet). We must prioritize and make hard choices. Otherwise, we try to do everything, and in doing so, don’t do anything particularly well.
The City of Winnipeg finds itself in the same predicament.
Loren Remillard is president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.