Amen to libraries: City approves controversial 2011 operating budget

This morning, city council voted 10-6 in favour of the 2011 operating budget—a spending plan that has sparked significant controversy, as well as a city-wide media campaign, over a proposed increase in the frontage levy on city properties and a hike in recreation fees.

To cover the $30 million increased cost of emergency services and other workers’ salaries, the city plans to increase recreation fees $900,000, generate $14.4 million in higher frontage levies, transfer $17.1 million from water and waste and collect an additional $1.5 million in traffic offences.

The city will retain the property tax freeze. However, as councillor Mike Pagtakhan eloquently pointed out, “... A frontage levy is a property tax.”

The debate around the budget unfolded predictably, with Couns. Scott Fielding (St. James), Justin Swandel (St. Norbert) and mayor Sam Katz chiding councillor Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge) for supporting frontage levy and recreation fee increases in previous years.

The mayor also criticized councillor John Orlikow (River Heights) for not meeting with him privately during budget consultations. The mayor described his decision as a “slap in the face” to the residents of River Heights.

Despite the mudslinging, some real issues did emerge during the debate. Some councillors argued that the frontage levy and recreation fee increases could be consolidated into a more progressive and across-the-board property tax increase of 3.75 per cent.

It was argued that the frontage levy is highly regressive while the recreation fee hike will dissuade low income Winnipeggers from accessing city services.

Couns. Russ Wyatt (Transcona) and Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre) tabled an amendment to the budget, which stated as much. However, the amendment was defeated 11-5.

Wyatt argued that the city needs to balance its budget, address its staggering infrastructure deficit (“This city is literally falling apart,” he said), and come together to formulate a cohesive municipal strategy.

“It’s difficult to do that while we continue to perpetuate a property tax freeze,” he said, adding that it is unlikely that the province will give the city more revenue by dedicating part of the provincial sales tax to municipal infrastructure (the mayor alluded to this in his state of the city speech).

In addition to the debate over property taxes, several councillors expressed dissatisfaction with the budgetary process.

“I need the opportunity to ask the administration questions,” said Orlikow, explaining his refusal to meet with the mayor. “I’m not interested in private meetings. I’m not interested in swapping ideas in hallways.”

The same sentiment was expressed by Gerbasi, who complained about having so little time to look over the budget and no access to any of the alternatives that were tabled before EPC.

The morning was not dedicated entirely to political gamesmanship and negativity.

Councillor Dan Vandal (St. Boniface), who described the budget as “not fantastic…but not terrible, either,” pointed out that the $12 million increase in funding to the Winnipeg Police Service is clearly fulfilling a “community priority.”

Additionally, he touted the fact that the Millennium Library will be extending its operating hours on Saturday’s from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm and that free Wi-Fi will soon be available in all the city’s libraries as well as the Pan Am Pool and the new North End Recreation Complex.

Amen to libraries.