Budget freeze could force closures of Winnipeg's arenas, rec facilities

The City of Winnipeg's property and planning department is offering some difficult budget choices to councillors, including layoffs, deferring maintenance on hundreds of buildings, and cutting grants to various organizations.

Maintenance and staffing may have to be scaled back to meet targets, property committee hears

Deferring maintenance on Winnipeg's arenas, pools and community centres could mean some facilities would eventually have to be closed, committee chair Brian Mayes said Friday. (Rudy Gauer/CBC)

Some of Winnipeg's aging arenas and recreation facilities may have to be closed in the coming years, the city's property and planning committee heard during budget deliberations Friday.

Under the new four-year budget planning process the city unveiled last month, Winnipeg's property and planning department faces a freeze in its funding.

To meet that target, councillors on the property and planning committee were told Friday by department staff that building maintenance and repairs might be scaled back dramatically for arenas, community and leisure centres, pools, and other buildings.

As part of his department's budget proposal presentation, property, planning and development director John Kiernan told councillors his staff has looked closely at capital expenditures on the city's buildings and determined "anything not considered essential would not be addressed."

The department's staffing could shrink by as many as 17 positions over four years and some grants, such as for public art, could be cut, department staff told councillors.

Those eliminated positions may include clerks, technicians, inspectors and supervisors in permits, and staff in planning.

The impact of the staff changes, the committee was told, could result in longer wait times for inspections and increased response time to complaints.

Those cuts would come to a department that is significantly smaller than similar ones in most other Canadian cities, councillors were told.

The options presented by property and planning senior staff would trim a total of nearly $27 million from the department's budgets over four years.

Staff did not provide data on revenue the department takes in, saying they will provide those figures a later meeting.

Thin icing, large cake 

The department manages more than 1,600 city-owned buildings and structures — from arenas to small sheds — oversees permits and planning for construction, and provides fleet services and other operations for all city departments.

Cutting back on repairs and maintenance could mean some facilities — especially aging ones — may have to be closed.

The average age of city-owned buildings is 54 years, and some need constant repairs, councillors heard.

By the department's own ratings, its assets are on average in poor to very poor condition, its leased building portfolio "is aged and significantly beyond life expectancy," and the average age of municipal office buildings is 25 years past the average life expectancy of 50 years.

Coun. Brian Mayes said it's time to debate what to do about city-owned arenas. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

To meet the budget, upgrades would only be made to infrastructure that relates to health, life safety and emergency systems, with only $2.3 million budgeted for that purpose.

"That's a very thin icing on a very large cake," Kiernan said, and the department would be forced to be "reactive more and [deal] with issues as they come up."

The difficult choices come at a time when the department is under intense scrutiny over the behaviour of some of its inspectors, and because of criticism of planning processes.

One item in the proposed budget, though, could be beneficial to residents and builders — the department is beginning a process to provide online permit applications.

It may take up to three years for the system to be ready, but it could reduce unnecessary visits to city offices and paperwork, the department said.

Completed work projects would still require physical verification and onsite inspections.

Tough budget options need public feedback

Coun. Brian Mayes, who chairs the property, planning and development committee, acknowledged there are difficult decisions ahead in a budget process that is more open than in the past — and that includes very public disclosures of worst-case scenarios from the public service.

Mayes says residents need to weigh in with their choices, especially when deferring maintenance and repairs on some city facilities could mean closing them for good.

"What are your priorities? What do you want done here? It's a fair question. It would be much better to be slowly phasing out an arena a year and putting up a new one. But that's hard to do within the revenue we've got," Mayes said.

Waverley West Coun. Janice Lukes expressed sympathy for city staff who may lose their jobs in the push for balanced budgets — and will see those cuts coming in the city's open budget process.

She also wondered why the department's presentation didn't include revenue options, along with its proposals for cuts.

Waverley West Coun. Janice Lukes wonders why the department's budget presentation didn't include revenue options alongside proposals for spending cuts. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC )

She was less pessimistic, though, about trimming maintenance spending on some city facilities — a process she believes could force much–needed closures of aging and redundant buildings.

"There are a lot of old buildings. What we heard was there was 60-some … community centres. In my opinion, some of them should be amalgamated, absolutely. Some of those old buildings should be shut down that aren't being optimized," Lukes said.

"So if this is the way to do it, I'm OK with that."

The public will get to make submissions on the proposed budgets for all departments later in November.

Under the city's charter, it must have a finalized budget in place and approved by the end of March, and that budget must be balanced.

This is the first time the city has engaged in a multi-year budget planning process.


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