Reality check on 2012 city operating budget

Mayor, opposition councillors can’t have cake and eat it, too

Jade Markus

Last week, the City of Winnipeg tabled a preliminary operating budget - a spending blueprint for city services - that included a marginal, much delayed and much needed increase in property taxes.

Overall, the budget is reasonable and Winnipeg residents were thankfully spared the pandemonium that arose in 2011 surrounding controversial measures to increase recreation fees and continue a property tax freeze for a 14th year while imposing an ill-communicated levy on property frontage.

However, that does not mean that Winnipeggers have been spared the typically thoughtless rhetoric used on both sides of the political spectrum at City Hall.

The most galling example of this on the left was Fort Rouge councillor Jenny Gerbasi’s decision to rehash the 2010 civic election in her critique of the preliminary spending plan.

Gerbasi hammered home the point, which has been repeated several times by Winnipeg leftists over the past week, that Mayor Sam Katz is a hypocrite for opposing mayoral challenger Judy Wasylycia-Leis’s proposed two per cent, per year property tax increase during the 2010 campaign only to raise taxes by 3.5 per cent.

If Wasylycia-Leis had won in 2010, the city would have raised property taxes by four per cent over the last two years, meaning that the margin of difference between Sam and Judy is only half a per cent. And that’s excluding Katz’s frontage levy of 2011.

However, while Katz’s fear mongering during the campaign was detestable, rehashing an old debate is counterproductive.

The mayor did not say in 2010 whether or not he would raise property taxes, so the notion of broken promises is null and void. Additionally, he has not committed to tax increases every year for four years, as Wasylycia-Leis did, which is the very proposal he was attacking.

Gerbasi should express some gratitude that the mayor has finally done the right thing, albeit in a marginal way

The mayor has, along with city finance chairman Scott Fielding, faced up to at least some of the realities of shrinking city revenues and has addressed those realities with a tax increase that Gerbasi has been rallying behind for years.

Gerbasi should express some gratitude that the mayor has finally done the right thing, albeit in a marginal way, and should propose some practical alternatives to cutting well-paying city jobs or freezing library service budgets, which Fielding has proposed.

I have no doubt that she will do this in the coming weeks before the final council meeting to approve the budget, but she needs to put the 2010 election to bed.

Katz won handily, and not just because of the tax freeze. Get over it.

As for the mayor himself, he continues to completely lack the communication skills necessary to drive home the benefits of the tax freeze in the first place and the feasibility of Manitoba municipalities receiving one point of Manitoba’s provincial sales tax.

The province of Manitoba faces its own financial challenges through a massive budget deficit. Shaving off one point of PST and channeling it to municipalities for infrastructure will only further compound the province’s fiscal woes.

Not only did the mayor hurt his bargaining power by asking for the money while not raising property taxes (the city’s primary source of revenue) throughout his first and second terms, he has also failed to concede that the province has its own fiscal challenges that go above and beyond its obligation to Winnipeg, or any other municipality.

Why not ask for a one per cent increase in the PST to accommodate infrastructure challenges among municipalities? But wait. That would reduce the legitimacy of the mayor’s low-tax ideology, which assumes that the province can keep taxes low and cut spending while the city does the same, which quite simply won’t happen as long as the New Democrats retain a commanding majority.

The mayor can’t have his cake and eat it, too. And neither can Coun. Gerbasi.

Ethan Cabel is a politics student at the University of Winnipeg and The Uniter’s news assignment editor.

Published in Volume 66, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 7, 2012)

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