On Jan. 9, city council’s executive policy committee - led by Mayor Sam Katz and finance chairman Russ Wyatt - tabled the city’s preliminary operating and capital budgets; two spending blueprints that outline the cost of city services and capital expenditures.
Unsurprisingly, the two budgets were met with the usual combination of righteous indignation and scorn, with Wyatt and Katz attempting to justify their spending decisions based on revenue problems and other issues.
Overall, though, the budget is a mixed bag of positive and negative spending that attempts to undo past damage and cobble together a modest public policy legacy out of the mayor’s disparate flops.
In the following three ways, the 2013 operating and capital budgets constitute a welcome disappointment:
1) The mayor is in “legacy mode”
Given that Sam Katz is entering his ninth year as Winnipeg’s mayor, he is beginning to noticeably contemplate his overall legacy.
The Duddy Enterprises shell company embarrassment and the fire hall land swap debacle are unlikely to factor into those calculations in that they reveal a dark underbelly at city hall that has yet to be fully unearthed.
Instead, it appears the mayor is re-focusing his priorities toward infrastructure and transportation.
The long overdue $1.1 million investment in the second leg of the Southwest Rapid Transitway; the $10 million dedicated to ease traffic congestion in the Polo Park area; and the decision to put aside one per cent of the 3.87 per cent property tax hike to road and bridge repair will go a long way toward living up to that reputation.
These developments are bolstered by the successful Osborne Street bridge overhaul and the reconstruction of the Disraeli Freeway, among other past investments.
2) Doing damage control on transit, recreation
Last year, the mayor and his inner circle made two colossal policy flubs.
First, the $7 million investment in a waterpark and hotel on a large swath of city land (known as Parcel Four, near Katz’s Winnipeg Goldeyes ballpark) went nowhere after myriad architectural and other concerns precipitated the political defeat of the project.
Second, a proposed 20 cent transit fare hike to help pay for the second leg of the Southwest Transitway failed to pass a provincial smell test and was rejected.
Investing $7 million of dubious waterpark cash in various recreation projects, including rebuilding the East Elmwood Community Centre, as well as the $1.1 million transit investment mentioned above and the ongoing negotiations around an annual university bus pass, have gone a long way toward mollifying Winnipeggers with a healthy dose of financial (and political) damage control.
3) Ward decision hurts real representation
A healthy debate has been taking place in Winnipeg over how city council can better represent constituents.
Due to the small number of wards (and, hence, city councillors), the average councillor represents measurably more people than an average provincial MLA.
City administration recommended that ward boundaries be redrawn to accommodate the addition of another ward, and another council seat, which would make city hall more reflective of a growing population.
A new ward would cost roughly $175,000 annually. A rather modest expense considering Winnipeg’s population is likely to increase by 174,000 people in the next 20 years.
The bizarre decision to add $40,000 to the discretionary ward allowance of all 15 city councillors - a total expenditure of $600,000 that will likely remain part of the budget in perpetuity - while cancelling the addition of a new ward, constitutes a rather severe PR boondoggle.
The city has opted for potentially wasteful spending over more substantive democratic representation. That being said, the decision to reintroduce a team of advisers to the mayor and executive policy committee (they were dismissed during a 2008 re-organization) at a cost of $722,000, will likely bring policy coherence back to Main Street.
The 2013 operating and capital budgets, featuring another property tax hike exceeding three per cent, are unlikely to make anyone particularly happy. But they are equally unlikely to make anyone seethe with anger the way they seethed over last year’s legion policy embarrassments.
In that way, the city’s spending blueprint is a welcome change, albeit a disappointing one.
Published in Volume 67, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 23, 2013)