Winnipeg could close St. Boniface fire hall, shutter libraries, arenas and pools to meet budget targets

Winnipeg would close a fire-paramedic station, shutter libraries, pools and arenas and turf improvements to athletic fields in order to meet tough new requirements to rein in public spending.

Stark proposals from community services department latest to emerge from new city budget process

Fire crews responded to a fire at an oilseed plant on Dawson Road in 2018. The city may close nearby Station No. 9 to meet budget targets. (John Einarson/CBC)

Winnipeg may have to close a fire-paramedic station, shutter libraries, pools and arenas, and turf improvements to athletic fields in order to meet tough new requirements to rein in public spending, the city committee responsible for community services was told Saturday.

As part of a new four-year budget process, all city departments have been asked to come before council committees and propose how they would keep spending hikes within specific targets.

In previous years, this was done behind closed doors, prior to the presentation of a draft budget.

This year, the first step has been happening in public — and it's resulted in a week of stark announcements about potential service cuts and facility closures.

At a rare Saturday meeting of city council's protection, community services and parks committee, officials from the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, along with the parks and open spaces and community services departments, offered up visions of vastly reduced city services and amenities.

Fire-paramedic Chief John Lane, whose department has been asked to keep spending hikes within two per cent per year, said the service would have to close Station No. 9, which sits on Marion Street near Dawson Road.

The station is in an industrial area, but also serves residential households.

"Citizens in the immediate area will receive a longer wait time for apparatus to arrive to a fire or medical event," the fire-paramedic services states in its budget proposal.

"There is the potential for an increased risk of property damage and life loss as a result of the reduced fire coverage in the immediate area."

Lane called the closure "the least worst" of the available options for the fire-paramedic service.

The fire-paramedic service would also stop operating one fire truck at Station No. 2 at Watt Street and cancel a consolidation of the two stations, Lane said. That, in turn, would make it impossible to transfer a fire truck to Waverley West, where the population is growing.

Libraries, pools and arenas could close

Winnipeg's community services department, which was asked to keep spending hikes under 0.5 per cent for the coming four years, also told the committee it would have to make drastic cuts to meet its target.

Community services director Cindy Fernandes said her department would slash the number of wading pools from 81 to 43 and also close the Kinsmen Sherbrook Pool, Transcona Centennial indoor pool, Eldon Ross pool, Happyland pool and Windsor Park pool.

Hours at the Margaret Grant, St. James and Civic Centre pools would be reduced. 

Sherbrook Pool could close as part of an effort to meet city budget targets. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

The department would also close the Westwood, West Kildonan and Fort Garry libraries. Reduced library hours would mean all branches would be closed by 8 p.m., and fewer would be open on Sundays.

Fernandes also said her department would have to cancel its infrastructure grant to the General Council of Winnipeg Community Centres — a central resource for the city's community centres — and also reduce its funding by 10 per cent.

It would also reduce grants to the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, Garden City Community Centre and East End Community Club, and reduce funding for Art City, Graffiti Art, the North End Renewal Corporation and the University of Manitoba by 10 per cent.

Drop-in and reduced-fee recreation programming would be cut by 25 per cent next year. Leisure guide programming would be cut 50 per cent in 2021, with the exception of swimming lessons.

The Peguis Trail Health and Fitness Centre would close in 2021. The Sargent Park, Bertrand, Charles Barbour and Maginot arenas would close, while the Terry Sawchuk Arena would remain closed. 

No fixes to soccer fields

The committee also heard Saturday from public works director Jim Berezowsky, who unveiled a proposal to keep spending increases for parks and open spaces under 1.5 per cent per year.

Parks and open spaces would cancel a boat dock launch and study to save $100,000, cancel all athletic field improvements, and cancel all building upgrades at Assiniboine Park, Centennial Park and the Living Prairie Museum. Funding for reforestation would improve by $383,000 per year under the plan.

Terry Sawchuk Arena is closed and would remain closed under the proposals presented Saturday. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The changes presented to the committee Saturday are not actual budget proposals. Under the new multi-year budget process, all city departments were asked to keep spending within specific targets and propose how they would do that before a draft budget is put together.

The Winnipeg Police Service, Winnipeg Fire-Paramedic Service, Winnipeg Transit, and the water and waste department were asked to keep spending hikes within two per cent a year. Public works was asked to keep spending hikes within 1.5 per cent a year, while community services was limited to 0.5 per cent per year.

In presentations this past week, the police service said the new budget targets would force it to put fewer officers on the street, Winnipeg Transit said it would cut routes and public works said it would stop collecting garbage from apartment buildings.

The cuts to community services proposed Saturday were condemned by social activists.

"A legacy of under-investment is now the reasoning used for many of the proposed closures and cuts in community services," said Kate Kehler of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg. 

"If these go through, we will just be doubling down on cutting what works to make Winnipeg a safe and affordable city."

The proposals also led Coun. Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood) to slam finance chair Scott Gillingham (St. James) and Mayor Brian Bowman for scaring Winnipeggers.

"One must question Coun. Gillingham and Mayor Bowman as to why a few months ago, they said our city is one of the best managed. Now the sky is falling because they promised to keep taxes low? In my world, budgets started at the top," Klein said on Twitter.

"They won't freeze senior management salaries, eliminate expense accounts, all staff and council travel, conferences, stop all studies and consultants, just to start."


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.