Police, transit, roads: Here's why budget uncertainty matters to Winnipeggers

More significantly, a simple offer to give the city the same money it received last year may amount to the end of a number of city-provincial funding deals where the province used to give the city slightly more money every year.

One month after the PC budget, Winnipeg is still trying to peer inside the 'single basket' of funding

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman says he's still seeking clarity from the province about the budget unveiled in April. (Jules Runne/CBC)

Ever since Finance Minister Cameron Friesen lifted the lid on Manitoba's budget for the next year, officials at the City of Winnipeg are still trying to figure out what it means.

The second spending blueprint put together by Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservatives made very little mention of Winnipeg. That itself was odd when you consider the size of the Manitoba capital relative to the province's overall population, not to mention the city's role in the provincial economy.

It's entirely possible the absence of ink about Winnipeg was not intended to be a snub. But now that more than a month has passed since budget day, it's looking like a deliberate choice.

That's because pretty much everyone at the city, from Mayor Brian Bowman down to frontline police officers, still has no clue about the financial implications of this spending document.

On budget day, provincial officials could not answer questions about the budget's implications for the city. Neither could Bowman, who deferred comment until city finance experts had time to review the document.

The results of that review yielded so little clarity, city council finance chair Scott Gillingham (St. James-Brooklands-Weston) — a card-carrying Conservative — was forced to muse aloud about the financial uncertainty earlier this month.

This is not because the city doesn't know how much money it will receive in 2017-18. On the contrary, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has made it clear Winnipeg will receive the same total funding this year as it did last year.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says Winnipeg is receiving the same funding it received last year. That's left the future of incremental funding deals in question. (CBC News)
This poses two problems for the city. For starters, static funding from one year to the next is a de facto funding cut when you factor inflationary pressures into the equation.

More significantly, a simple offer to give the city the same money it received last year may amount to the end of a number of funding deals where the province used to give the city slightly more money every year.

Instead, this year the province is effectively telling the city to take a "single basket" of funding and spend it how you like. That might sound great on the surface, but it may force the city to make a number of significant cuts.

​"This council has shown we're not afraid to make tough decisions," Bowman said late last week when he was asked how Winnipeg will deal with this "single basket" of provincial funding. "My primary concern right now is just getting clarity on what exactly those numbers are right now."

In other words, the province still has not made it clear whether it actually intended its pledge to offer the city stable funding to translate into cuts. And this uncertainty poses two possibilities, with neither of them flattering the Pallister government.

Finance Minister Cameron Friesen presented the Tories' second budget more than a month ago. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)
If nobody in the provincial finance ministry did the basic arithmetic, that means Pallister and Friesen actually had no clue what their budget would mean for Winnipeg.

It's more likely they were aware of the ramifications and are simply choosing to make city council, city staff and the Winnipeg Police Board make cuts on the province's behalf.

While there are a number of potential cuts that could be made, the most likely involve funding agreements where more money is supposed to flow every year. Here are the four most obvious targets.

1. Winnipeg Transit

Every year, the cost of operating Winnipeg Transit rises due to the increasing cost of fuel and labour as well as the growth of the city itself.

A long-standing deal between the city and province had Manitoba matching whatever Winnipeg spends on public transit, including the annual increases. But it's unclear whether this 50-50 funding arrangement is still on the table, thanks to the province's "single-basket" funding commitment.

If Winnipeg covers more of the cost of operating transit, that spending hike must be offset by cuts to some other aspect of the municipal budget.

Conversely, the city could ratchet down on transit funding, which would create labour outrage at a time when the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 is clamouring for increased funding for a transit-security force.

2. Police helicopter

In 2010, the city spent $3.5 million to add a helicopter to the Winnipeg Police Service's toolkit. The province agreed to cover the annual operating costs, which started out at $1.2 million a year but has been rising ever since.

Ever since the city purchased Air1, the province has paid for its operations. (Bartley Kives/CBC)
The former NDP government promised a review of Air1 operations, but that failed to get off the ground before the Pallister government was elected.

As it turns out, the provincial budget may have made this review moot. If the "single basket" of provincial funding for Winnipeg requires the city to chip in more money for the aircraft, the Winnipeg Police Board may simply decide to ground Air1 for good.

3. Infrastructure funding

In 2016, Bowman was over the moon about the presence of the Building Manitoba Fund in the Pallister government's first provincial budget. This is not really a fund but a provincial commitment to devote a specific proportion of new tax revenues to municipal infrastructure.

In essence, Pallister pledged to give municipalities, including Winnipeg, a little bit more money to fix roads and build bridges every year.

This year, the provincial budget made no mention of the Building Manitoba Fund much to the mayor's chagrin. As a result, the status of provincial funding for the city is uncertain.

4. Police force

During some previous budget years, though certainly not all of them, the provincial government promised to help the city hire more police officers. 

No government wants to wear a decision to reduce the police complement. (Bert Savard/CBC)
Since it costs more to pay those officers and give them benefits every year, former mayor Sam Katz lobbied the provincial government to factor those incremental costs into the police-funding deals.

If the flat provincial funding places more of the burden for paying for these officers on the city, it's possible the Winnipeg Police Service may be instructed to hold off on hiring new police officers, as it does from time to time in order to save money.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.