Councillor asks Manitoba to wade in on sewage, water rate hike spending plans

Winnipeg Coun. Jason Schreyer says the province should step in and call for a public hearing on the city's plans to siphon away water and waste rate hike revenues and put them back into the city's general revenue coffers.

Unintended use of water revenues prompts calls for public hearing

Critics of the City of Winnipeg's proposed 9.2 per cent water and waste rate hike met at City Hall Friday. There are concerns over the city's plan to divert $32 million water and waste spending and into general revenue for use on a variety of projects. (Tim Graham)

The province should step in and call for a public hearing on the city's plans to siphon away water and waste rate hike revenues and put them back into the city's general revenue coffers, a Winnipeg councillor says.

"They're robbing Peter to pay Paul, only Peter really needs the money to build up his capital reserve in order to get our water treatment centres up to the same standard as the rest of the country," Coun. Jason Schreyer said in a statement Monday.

In a draft of the city's 2016 budget released last week, the city revealed plans to channel money from a proposed 9.2 per cent water and sewer services rate hike into the city's general revenue pot.

The province would like to see that money used to modernize Winnipeg sewer and water treatment facilities. 

Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Tom Nevakshonoff accused the city of trying to use money intended for water treatment upgrades to instead fix Winnipeg roads. Nevakshonoff suggested the Public Utilities Board (PUB) review the decision. 

"Minister Nevakshonoff is onto something," Schreyer said. While the Manitoba government can't completely shut the process down, it isn't powerless either, he added.

"The PUB might not be able to officially audit the city, as the city is exempt from the PUB under the province's charter at this time. However, they can call on hearings as they did in the past. As well, they should look at changing the charter to stop the city from pillaging the Water and Waste funds." 

The hike would cost an average family of four an extra $23 each quarter, bringing in an extra $6.6 million in revenue from water bills. However, roughly $32 million in projected water and waste dividends will be put back into general revenue, the proposed budget states.

The city's water and waste committee voted to delay a vote on the proposed increase on March 4 after a day of deliberations. Members will have until April to study the detailed proposal.

The water hike isn't the only file in the city's budget to rouse the ire of councillors. The city is also proposing to raise property taxes by 2.33 per cent, with the lion's share of revenues earmarked for regional and local road renewal projects.

"It took me a few days, but now I've seen enough. Everywhere I look in this budget, the Ponzi scheme of moving funds around to make it look better than it is has become highly confusing, which I now realize is the point," said Schreyer. "The province could really help Winnipeggers on this one."

The issue was discussed at city hall Monday.