Winnipeg budget passes as political business winds down at city hall

The City of Winnipeg has passed its latest budget, with just three councillors voting against it. Major cuts proposed months ago never materialized.

Many proposed cuts avoided, but community groups and arts funding are trimmed

Winnipeg's mayor touts the city's latest budget process as the 'most open and transparent' ever, while others say it was deeply flawed. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC )

After months of debate and sometimes vigorous pushback against potential cuts to services and facility closures, Winnipeg's city council voted 11 to three Friday for a four-year budget that sees some grants pared back and a property tax increase at a long-promised 2.33 per cent.

Couns. Ross Eadie, Kevin Klein and Jason Schreyer voted against the budget, while Transcona Coun. Shawn Nason and St. Norbert's Markus Chambers were absent. The rest of council voted in favour of the spending plan.

The budget has been chewed over multiple times since October, when the city's department heads proposed deep cuts to services, staff, and facilities such as pools and libraries to meet strict limits on budget increases.

Winnipeg Transit will see a significant investment as the city introduces a "spine-and-feeder" route connected to the rapid transit line, and begins offering 30 per cent discounts to low-income passengers and free transit service for kids under 12 in 2021.

The budget also spares the U-Pass bus program for post-secondary students, provided they agree to pay an extra $40 per semester for the passes.

Six libraries will not be shuttered on Sundays, as originally proposed, though there will be reduced daily hours.

A 10 per cent cut remains to almost all annual grants, including dozens of groups ranging from athletics to art, as well as community drop-ins.

The budget vote came during what may be one of the last public meetings at city hall for several weeks or months because of the COVID-19 emergency — a pandemic that forced Coun. Chambers, who is in self-isolation after returning to Winnipeg on Tuesday from a Caribbean cruise, to miss the vote.

Coun. Nason, meanwhile, left in the middle of  a city hall meeting earlier this week, declaring not enough precautions had been taken in the building to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Nason told CBC on Friday he had gone into self-isolation after travelling to Grand Forks last week and calling the provincial government's HealthLinks line.

"It was clearly articulated that I needed to self-isolate under the revised protocols," Nason said 

The atmosphere Friday felt different from previous budget meetings, with social distancing precautions requiring a rearranging of the chairs around the council table.

Mayor Brian Bowman says his multi-year budget is historic and ends growing structural deficits. (Jeff Stapelton/CBC )

"We're not spread out because we don't agree on the budget," Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie said Friday morning, but he was later vocal with his criticism of cuts to community groups, and the lack of a plan to protect low-income homeowners from property tax increases.

Mayor Brian Bowman touted the budget as having the smallest increases (1.5 per cent) in tax-supported expenditures in the city's history.

Bowman and finance chair Scott Gillingham (St. James) repeatedly said the city has to rein in its spending to combat a growing structural deficit.

The mayor told councillors the budget didn't come with some of the stark choices originally presented in the fall.

"I'm pleased this multi-year, balanced budget we are voting on today ensures that civic facilities that are open right now do not close," Bowman told councillors.

One by one, councillors stood and supported or sniped at the budget.

"So finally we get a four-year budget forecast, but it doesn't explain why we continue to decrease services, increase taxes and increase our debt," said Jason Schreyer (Elmwood-East Kildonan).

Klein, meanwhile, said the city has "a severe accounting problem," and lacks a reliable debt strategy.

Coun. Kevin Klein was one of three councillors who voted against the budget. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC )

The budget was a "major disappointment" for the Budget for All coalition. The alliance of several community groups lobbied hard against grant reductions, transit route changes and cuts to the Winnipeg Arts Council.

"These cuts weren't necessary at all. City council chose roads and policing instead of community organizations or the arts," said Budget For All spokesperson Chantal Garand.

The COVID-19 health emergency prompted amendments to give financial relief to residents and business owners.

Council unanimously voted to direct the public service to work on a plan to defer the collection of property and businesses taxes for 90 days in response to the health emergency, or find an alternative if that plan isn't workable.

The same motion also gives the city's chief administrative officer the authority to waive late charges on fees if Winnipeg's payment system is affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Council followed the budget vote with a second meeting, replacing one that was scheduled for later in March but cancelled because of the health emergency.