From the very recent destruction of the homeless camps by the Disraeli Bridge, to making diamond lanes open to cabs, the City’s decisions can be head-scratching at best and heartbreaking at worst.
Winnipeg can be a challenging place to live even under fairly ideal circumstances, but the threat of losing public recreation services could turn challenging into unbearable for those who live in higher-needs neighbourhoods.
The proposed City budget, which was released in October and will be passed in February, details closing libraries, pools and recreation facilities in older neighbourhoods throughout the city and eradicating public art funding as ways to rein-in spending over the next four years.
These decisions were followed by the quiet proposal to create a multimillion-dollar leisure centre in Waverley West, a new suburban development that has come under fire as a serious move away from responsible, sustainable city planning and as a major drain on city resources and tax dollars.
Philip Mikulec, who works in the sustainable transportation sector, says while “the budget is certainly concerning, this is nothing new. We’ve had budget after budget that has contained ‘difficult decisions.’ It happens year after year.”
Mikulec, who has a background in city planning, explains that “we are overbuilding our city, sprawling way too much. Our capital budget (disproprtionately favours spending on) roads, yet Winnipeggers continue to believe we have an underfunded road system.”
The Public Works budget, which covers streets, public parks, open spaces and other street projects, accounted for 30.4 per cent of Winnipeg’s total capital budget for 2019. Of that 30.4 per cent, 83.43 per cent went to local and regional streets, a cost of nearly $84 million.
“Building roads has the lowest return on investment compared to cycling and transit infrastructure and community and recreation services,” he says.
“Part of the picture is our mixed priorities. We’d rather build a massive community complex in Waverley West than support the ones that already exist in high-need neighbourhoods. At one point, the City is saying that recreation and community services keep costs down, then they are proposing closing them down and building a multi-million dollar complex elsewhere.”
Happyland Outdoor Pool, a St. Boniface mainstay that provides free swim-time to residents throughout the summer, is one of many services on the chopping block.
St. Boniface resident Diana Sawatzky moved with her family to the neighbourhood five years ago and says “I met a lot of my neighbours there ... Parents and grandparents are socializing, watching their kids swim.” Sawatzky, who is car-free, “depends a lot on transit, so having resources close to home is so important.
“Lots of kids go (to the pool) without their parents. It’s a safe place, especially for kids whose parents work throughout the summer months or can’t be home as much. The fact that it’s free is huge for families who may not have money to spend on recreation. These are the kids who maybe don’t get to take extracurricular sports, so if they want activity, they go to the pool, get outdoors and are supervised.”
These cuts will likely hurt the people with the least the very most. Shauna MacKinnon, a professor of Urban and Inner-City Studies at the University of Winnipeg, explains that public services like pools and libraries “are the most critically important for people who do not have resources to access private facilities. When we are talking about inclusion and prevention, these are exactly the kinds of services we don’t want to be cutting.”
According to MacKinnon, the public perception that we need more money spent on roads and policing needs to shift if we are going to create a more liveable city. “We are sinking a lot of money into the policing budget in contrast to cutting services that would help prevent issues of crime,” she says.
Investing in public transportation and recreation services can be a tough sell for those who live in outlying areas, and MacKinnon points out that “people living in newer suburban areas want different things. They want roads to get to the (city) centre quicker and may not see a need for things like opening up Portage and Main, because they aren’t the ones walking the streets. We have really divided priorities as a city based on how we’re organized, and it continues to get worse.”
Mikulec believes that the cuts to community services “are a canary in the coalmine. The reality is if we don’t make significant changes right away to our tax structure, the city’s finances will only worsen.”
On that note, Mikulec adds “our property taxes are among the lowest of our city cohorts. If you care about the city and you want these services, you need to be okay paying a little more in property taxes.”
Winnipeg has been notably reluctant to raise property taxes. Since 1998, property taxes in Winnipeg have only increased 17 per cent. That’s significantly lower than Regina’s 95 per cent, Saskatoon’s 122 per cent, Calgary’s 127 per cent or Edmonton’s 142 per cent increases.
Winnipeg Coun. Matt Allard says “the perception is often that the city is flush with cash,” which clearly isn’t the case, given this current proposed budget. Allard says there are multiple reasons why the city is in such a tight spot, not least of which is that “the provincial government used to support transit with 50/50 funding but they pulled out in 2017, which left an $8 million hole in the transit budget.”
For a city whose mayors have been freezing taxes for well over a decade, filling these gaps in an already tight budget is a serious challenge.
Allard believes that “essentially, we need more infill and densification in Winnipeg. If we can intensify our land use, we are going to be able to increase available revenue at a much more modest required investment.”
Michel Durand-Wood runs a blog called Dear Winnipeg that tackles current city infrastructure issues. He says “When you do the math, the best investments with the highest returns are trees, transit and recreation services instead of concrete.”
Durand-Wood notes that people don’t often realize that limited budgets might mean choosing between “smooth roads or parks, libraries and a community centre. The real problem is that the city has no money. It is struggling to meet basic services and is actually quite good at delivering services on a tight budget. We have the lowest expenditure per capita in Canada by far. Our city is able to deliver services on a shoestring (budget).”
He believes that in the “short term, it’s going to come to service cuts or a tax increase. Longer term is to start building in a different way, to look at incremental changes at a neighbourhood level – a grassroots approach.
“Ultimately, it has to come down to infill and transit and the realization that we have already built more infrastructure than we can handle. We need to maintain what we have and stop building new stuff,” he says.
Winnipeg’s Public Art Program funds the creation of large-scale sculptural and site-specific works throughout the city, and is run by the Winnipeg Art Council with funding from the City. The Public Art Program, which is nationally and internationally renowned, is under threat of disappearing entirely.
tamara rae biebrich, a senior project manager in the public art department of the Winnipeg Arts Council (WAC), says that “with an annual allocation of $500,000 from City’s Capital Budget, WAC has been creating public art in Winnipeg for 15 years. This amount was reduced by half in 2019 to $250,000.”
WAC supports artists and brings their work to the public, often striving for “diversity of expression” while bringing to the public stories about Winnipeg and “ideas that can be encountered on a daily basis.”
biebrich explains that “the future of Winnipeg’s Public Art Program is currently unknown. The City is considering reducing the 2020 public art allocation to $200,000 and then eliminating the program all together in 2021.”
What is a city if not its communities, its creativity and the vibrant neighbourhoods that comprise it? Brand new suburban roads and an overabundance of cops? This seems to be the reality Winnipeg is hurtling towards. Public services go hand in hand with access to safer public space and recreation, particularly for those who are under-resourced and facing any kind of societal marginalization.
Durand-Wood, when talking about the possibility for Winnipeg to be a truly sustainable, inclusive and beautiful city says “I think we’ve forgotten what we can hope for.”
It’s not too late to turn around decisions the city is prepared to make, so if you are interested in saying your piece take a minute to write to city councillors. You can find their contact info at winnipeg.ca/council/contact.stm. Budget For All Winnipeg is a coalition fighting against the budget cuts. More info is available at budgetforall.org.
Published in Volume 74, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 30, 2020)