Closing pools and libraries, ending garbage collection for condo owners, and turning off every third street light. These were just a few of the more attention-grabbing suggestions presented to city council when it launched its new four-year budget planning cycle. Understandably, public reaction was visceral.
For many years, the city has asserted its future sustainability is threatened by the gap that exists between revenues and planned expenditures. But the city isn’t going to achieve a stable, long-term financial plan by turning off a few street lights. That is the "death by a thousand small cuts" approach to budgeting, and all it does is irritate the public now while kicking the "sustainability" can down the road.
The four-year budget cycle represents a milestone moment for city hall to end the "can-kicking," to bring a fresh look to how the city does business, so municipal government can strategically invest more into the priority needs of citizens, such as public safety, transit, infrastructure and recreation.
That starts by having a real understanding of the city’s core mandate and core services — what the fundamental role of the city is and what services are essential in order to fulfil that role effectively. City councillors, past and present, concede the city has suffered mission-creep over the years, fuelling expansion of city activities and expenditures, due in large part to avoiding the discussion about core mandate and services.
By moving to a multi-year budget, city council has created the right tool for our community to explore this core mandate question. Difficult but constructive conversations have taken place; more work is needed, but the new budget cycle is an important step in the right direction.
The next step requires public details on the full extent of what the city currently delivers for citizens. In 1998, the city produced the Management Reference Model for Government Services report, a comprehensive inventory of 260 external and 65 internal city activities. The report was supposed to be updated regularly, but it hasn’t been touched in 22 years.
A lot has changed in two decades, so let’s begin with a refreshed list. If the devil is in the details, the public needs the details.
Next, the city must resist making small cuts here, there and everywhere. It must determine which services are essential and which ones, while desirable for our community, are not the core responsibilities of a municipal government.
For example, the city’s own golf services department has acknowledged Winnipeg is overserved with golf courses. Repurposing at least some of the space used for golf could turn vast swaths of land into tax-generating infill properties and busy athletic fields and park space.
The city operates its own animal services department, which replicates much of the work done by the humane society and other non-profit shelters. Partnering with those organizations, such as what’s done in Ottawa and Regina, could offer cost-savings without eliminating the service altogether.
The city also continues to run ambulance services, when health care is the responsibility of the provincial government and regional health authority. Yes, the province pays the city back for its direct financial costs, though full reimbursement has been a source of tension between the two levels of government. But doing the province’s work takes time, energy and focus away from the city’s own responsibilities. More importantly, should the city be delivering services that are the core responsibility of another level of government?
Even within areas that can be deemed core activities, the city must rethink the way it delivers those services. By training employees in the same lean principles that work in the business world, it can improve the quality and efficiency of its own public services. In Denver, the city-operated Peak Academy has trained thousands of civic employees in lean methodology, generating annual savings worth 10 times the cost of operating the program while improving service standards. Miami, San Diego and San Francisco have experienced similar results.
While the city has done a commendable job of moving services online, more opportunities remain. According to Winnipeg’s 2019 Community Trends and Performance Report, 89 per cent of citizens surveyed said their primary method of contact with the city is by telephone. Winnipeg must accelerate its online transformation, like Calgary, which estimates it will save $3.5 million annually by shifting the residential building-permit process almost fully online.
And reviewing whether office spaces are consistent with work trends could uncover potential savings. The City of Toronto recently went through a similar review, and announced it was reducing the office space it leases and owns by 25 per cent over five years. Leasing less space and selling off surplus buildings can free up more money to invest in core services and enhance outcomes.
On Friday, the city will release its proposed budget and the debate really begins. Let’s ensure we are asking the key questions, rather than wondering whose turn it is to kick the can.
Loren Remillard is president and CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.