Same old song and dance

City’s preliminary budget stays the course, for the worse

The City of Winnipeg released its 2010 preliminary operating budget on Tuesday, Feb. 16. To no one’s surprise, it holds the line on property taxes for the 13th year in a row. In fact, during Mayor Glen Murray’s term, there was a slight decrease in property taxes.

With this 13-year property tax freeze, Winnipeg now has the third lowest municipal taxes in Canada. Of course, since Mayor Katz was originally elected on the promise of eliminating the business tax, 36 per cent of all businesses will now pay no business tax.

Katz stated that a number of consultations were held to hear views and opinions of Winnipeg residents, businesses, community groups and associations. Lo and behold, what does this preliminary budget say about the results of the two-day consultations? Only that city service levels are valued and should be maintained. That’s it.

When Councillor Scott Fielding, Chairperson of the Standing Policy Committee on Finance, held public consultations for the city’s upcoming operating budget, approximately 60 people attended the two-day event. The consultations were divided into two sections: one encompassing an overview of what the operating budget deals with and the second into workshops where participants could identify what their priorities would be.

The most interesting aspect of the consultations was a survey conducted by Market Dimensions, titled, “What actions do you think the City of Winnipeg could take to improve life in the city?” The three actions citizens felt were most important were as follows: 32 per cent said improvements in roads and infrastructure, 18 per cent said crime and policing, and 8 per cent said transit. These compared with 2 per cent who said poverty, 1.5 per cent dealing with housing and 1 per cent with health care. There is something wrong with this picture.

In the workshop I attended, we discussed the challenges of a 2010 budget. We all agreed that service levels needed to be improved, rather than just maintained. It is impossible to maintain services and infrastructure if a tax freeze is maintained. We either need to increase property taxes somewhat, or negotiate with the Province of Manitoba for a better or fairer cost-sharing agreement.

Winnipeg’s citizens have not paid attention to the budget, even though it’s one of the policy actions that affects their lives the most directly.

In terms of infrastructure, renewal and public works, we discussed significant improvement in snow removal (especially from sidewalks and curbs) and continued improvement in public transit.

In terms of property and development, we discussed the need to establish a proper city planning department – which currently doesn’t exist – in order to develop proper planning. Significant monies are needed for neighbourhood revitalization too.

During a protection and community services workshop, we discussed the need for libraries to be open for longer periods of time in the evenings and weekends. To this, the city announced that three suburban libraries will open longer in the evenings, but none in the inner city.

We also discussed how foot patrols and neighbourhood policing should be funded more heavily, rather than spending money on a police helicopter. But if news reports are to be believed, it seems as though the helicopter will be in the air by the summer.

By and large, city council has proven unwilling to listen to the concerns of these consultations. While there will be an increase in policing (eight) and paramedics (17), all other services have remained stagnant due to tax freezes and Katz’s commitment to find efficiencies within the city organization and performance measures that can be tracked and monitored. All of which means less public service and more privatization.

Maybe that’s why Winnipeg’s citizens have not paid attention to the budget, even though it’s one of the policy actions that affects their lives the most directly.

Nick Ternette is a community and political activist, freelance writer and broadcaster living in McFeetors Hall at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 64, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 4, 2010)

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