Labour costs loom large over Winnipeg's 2017 spending plans

Winnipeg's contracts with three of its largest unions expire this December. This complicated the city's efforts to prepare a Winnipeg budget that will accurately reflect spending next year.

Winnipeg's budget, expected to be around $1.1B, to be unveiled this afternoon

Controlling labour costs is a priority for Winnipeg, Mayor Brian Bowman said on the eve of presenting a draft version of the city's budget for 2017. (CBC News)

Mayor Brian Bowman says he wants to limit Winnipeg's labour costs even though the city won't fall under proposed provincial legislation aimed at capping public-sector labour spending.​

The Pallister government used its Monday throne speech to declare its intention to pass legislation that would prevent the province from negotiating collective bargaining agreements it cannot afford in the long term.

Bowman said on Monday he would like to see how the city could be part of the legislation, even though it's too late to include a labour spending cap in Winnipeg's 2017 budget, which will be tabled this afternoon. The operating budget is expected to be in the vicinity of $1.1 billion, based on the size of spending hikes in recent years.

"Obviously, containing our labour costs is something we want to see," Bowman said Monday following the throne speech at the Manitoba Legislature. 

"(With) our labour practices, we want to see the value for money is there and any cost escalations that result from collective bargaining are maintained as low as possible."

Winnipeg's contracts with three of its largest unions — the Winnipeg Police Association, the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg and the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500 — all expire this December. 

This complicated the city's efforts to prepare a Winnipeg budget that will accurately reflect spending next year.

If the city set aside too much money to complete the labour deals, it would place itself at a bargaining disadvantage in the negotiations yet to come. But if too little money is allocated for collective agreements, the city could wind up in a deficit position at the end of 2017.

In recent years, CUPE has accepted small or nonexistent wage hikes in return for job security. Police and firefighters, whose contracts may be settled through arbitration because they cannot strike, have enjoyed higher wage increases.

Senior city officials, including former council finance chair Marty Morantz and chief financial officer Mike Ruta​, have identified police pensions and firefighter overtime as areas where the city could reduce labour costs. But it's unclear whether the city can negotiate more affordable contracts with its emergency-service unions.

A certainty in today's budget is a property-tax hike no less than the rate of inflation. Bowman promised inflationary property-tax hikes when he ran for office in 2014.

'Difficult decisions have to be made'

On Monday, the mayor would not say whether another frontage-levy hike is coming this year in addition to a property-tax hike.

He also declined to say what major projects will be included in the budget, though he hinted the city may not reopen Portage and Main in time for the Canada Summer Games, which start in July.

"The 2017 timeline that I mentioned in my state of the city speech is a hope. It's certainly not a hard and fast rule. The timing of those discussions will dictate when that goes before council."

Council finance chair Scott Gillingham (St. James-Brooklands-Weston) also hinted at service cuts, noting the city is prioritizing infrastructure repairs this year.

"Difficult decisions have to be made," he said, but also said there would not be many surprises in today's budget.

The spending plan will be presented at about 1:30 p.m. at a special meeting of council's executive policy committee.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

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.