'Difficult decisions' ahead as City of Winnipeg begins planning new 4-year budget

The launch of a new four-year budget process for the City of Winnipeg reveals targets for spending in all departments below the cost of inflation. To reach those goals could mean cuts to services or layoffs.

Increases for police, fire, transit expected be held to 2% per year, with property tax increases at 2.33%

Mayor Brian Bowman calls the city's new four-year budget process a 'blueprint for future growth,' but some councillors don't like how the multi-year budget is being drafted. (CBC)

Tight targets for spending increases in the City of Winnipeg's upcoming four-year budget have raised fears among some city councillors about layoffs or cuts to service at the city of Winnipeg.

A rough outline of what may come was made public Friday, as the city of Winnipeg officially launched its first process of creating a budget covering four years, instead of the usual year-by-year practice.

The new four-year budget will present "difficult decisions … and choices to make," Mayor Brian Bowman said in launching the budget process.

The draft budget for 2020-23 won't be tabled until February, but the city revealed expenditure targets for operating budgets on Friday.

Under those targets, property tax increases would continue at 2.33 per cent per year, with those funds dedicated to road improvements and a sliver of cash for rapid transit.

Police and fire services would see a two per cent increase each year, as would transit and water and waste. Public works is limited to 1.5 per cent per year increase, and community services to a slim 0.5 per cent per year.

None of those increases would meet or exceed the current rate of inflation.

Bowman, left, and finance chair Scott Gillingham, right, acknowledged tight limits to spending increases will present challenges in drafting the four-year budget. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Mayor Brian Bowman was flanked by his finance chair, Scott Gillingham, as the pair launched the new budget process in advance of a special meeting of council's executive policy committee.

Both acknowledged the below-inflation budget increases will make it a challenge to balance the books and meet the costs of collective bargaining agreements with city workers, police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

"There is a road laid out to get us to a balanced budget in March … but there will be some bumps along the way," Gillingham said.

"[There will be] difficult decisions and choices to be made for every member of council," said Bowman — language he used again when repeatedly asked about potential cuts. 

But he said it was too early in the process to guess if there would be cuts, calling them "hypotheticals."

A four-year budget process will provide "greater certainty and predictability for taxpayers," the mayor said, but warned structural operating deficits the city continues to run mean "revenues are simply not enough to meet services."

Coun. Janice Lukes called the rollout of the four-year budget process 'disappointing,' and criticized the lack of a strategic plan for the budget. (Trevor Brine/CBC )

The new multi-year budget process also means a radically different way of consulting both residents and councillors before the final decisions are made.

Department heads will make budget presentations to each standing committee of council next month, outlining suggestions on where and how to spend the city's billion-dollar budget.

Councillors and the public will be allowed to make submissions and suggestions to the committees.

Those recommendations will be further debated in subsequent meetings, before a preliminary budget is created — which will move on to executive policy committee and, ultimately, to city council, which is required to vote on the budget before March 31, 2020.

A round of community consultation will also allow the public to have more input.

Criticism from councillors

Criticism came quickly from some councillors about the new process, the looming possibility of service or job cuts, and the way Bowman and Gillingham informed councillors.

Waverley West Coun. Janice Lukes appeared at the EPC meeting to decry the lack of a strategic plan for the budget, and with criticism of the timing and scheduling of committee meetings to come.

"You are going to do it the way you do it, but I am not happy about it," Lukes told the mayor's cabinet.

Transcona's Shawn Nason was also concerned with the process, but also took aim at the possibility of cuts and tax increases in each of the next four years.

"I'm hearing from my constituents that we are paying more and we are getting less. And based on what I am seeing here … the feeling that I'm getting is there is going to be a lot less services for the citizens of Winnipeg," Nason said.

Transcona Coun. Shawn Nason worries the budget will cut into services, while taxes still rise. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Coun. Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood) also wondered where services might be cut, and blasted both the coming process and the lack of a spending review before the budget targets were set.

"I know they are saying this is a more inclusive opportunity, but you don't get to ask questions. It's a grand deflection, that's what this is. It's a wonderful marketing plan," said Klein.

Presentations to the standing committees will begin on Nov. 12, with the Winnipeg Police Board's budget presentation, and continue through the month and into December.

The final budget decisions will be debated at city council in March.