Shooting down a bright red trial balloon: What was with the mayor's gloomy pre-budget theatrics?

Anyone worried about major austerity measures at the City of Winnipeg this year can sleep easy tonight, as the city's spending plan for 2019 is pretty much another stand-pat budget. So what was with the mayor's theatrics, when he warned of a potentially huge tax hike?

Winnipeg property taxes are rising predictably, rather than the startling 9.4% hike the mayor hinted at

Lower spending on repairs 'is the city's new road reality,' Mayor Brian Bowman said on budget day, flanked by St. Jame councillor and finance chair Scott Gillingham. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

For the second budget season in a row, Mayor Brian Bowman employed the sort of hard-bargaining negotiating tactics more commonly seen in a Hollywood depiction of a used-car sales lot.

During the 2018 budget season, Winnipeg's mayor came out on budget day and scared the bejaysus out of voters by promising to raise Winnipeg Transit fares by 25 cents a ride and slash service on 23 routes to compensate for a provincial transit-funding freeze.

But by the time city council passed last year's budget, the service cuts were gone.

The largest transit fare hike in more than a decade somehow seemed more palatable after the mayor and his allies appeared to capitulate to public demands to maintain transit service at its existing level, which many Winnipeggers consider inadequate in the first place.

Perhaps buoyed by the success of last year's gambit, the mayor upped the rhetorical ante this budget season. During the weeks leading up to city budget day, Bowman repeatedly accused Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative government of either reneging or trying to amend or renege on infrastructure-funding deals.

What were initially warnings about a tough city budget mushroomed by this Wednesday into a bright red trial balloon: the mayor warned Winnipeg could raise property taxes by a walloping 9.43 per cent this year to make up for what Winnipeg chief financial officer Mike Ruta had characterized as a $40-million shortfall in provincial road renewal funding. 

To the surprise of what appears to be no one at city hall, property taxes are not going up 9.43 per cent this year. On Friday, Bowman unveiled a 2019 budget that includes Winnipeg's fifth straight property-tax hike of 2.33 per cent, as promised by the mayor during two election campaigns.

Again this budget season, frontage levy hikes are not going up. For the first time in more than a decade, transit fares are frozen. And there are no major cuts to any major city department except for human resources, which saw its budget slide $133,000 to just under $6.1 million.

Anyone worried about major austerity measures at the City of Winnipeg this year can sleep easy tonight, as the city's spending plan for 2019 is pretty much another stand-pat budget, at least where spending on city services is concerned.

Road renewal budget down

But this year's budget is a different story when it comes to capital spending, which is more easily understood as the money the city spends on buildings, roads, bridges, equipment and other forms of infrastructure.

The road renewal budget, which has been growing for most of the past decade, is going down $30 million to compensate for the purported $40-million road renewal funding hole — whose existence, it must be noted, is denied by Finance Minister Scott Fielding, the former city council finance chair who has a lot to say as of late about his former job.

The drop in road renewal funding is not reflective of overall city infrastructure spending. It only dropped $2 million this year, after declining far more dramatically during each of the past two budget seasons.

Mayor Brian Bowman and his allies have tried to keep Winnipeg voters content over the past couple of years by failing to fund infrastructure renewal in favour of doing their best to maintain services — something people immediately when they're not adequate. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Well before Mayor Brian Bowman picked a public fight with Premier Brian Pallister, Winnipeg started slashing infrastructure spending and putting off major projects.

In 2016, the city spent $369 million on infrastructure that is not financed by water and sewer bills. That's down a full third to $244 million this year, partly because other levels of government haven't been shovelling infrastructure money in Winnipeg's direction — and partly because the city has been spending less of its own hard cash as well.

The budget line item known as "cash to capital," which involves transferring operating revenue over to the infrastructure side, has declined from $75 million in 2016 to $21 million this year.

If this drop continues, the city will return to the days when it's investing next to nothing in infrastructure  —and deferred maintenance will begin to become even more of a problem for the city's community centres, parks, hockey arenas and other amenities.

Services maintained, infrastructure renewal deferred

In other words, this mayor and his allies have tried to keep Winnipeg voters content over the past couple of years by failing to fund infrastructure renewal — something voters don't tend to perceive immediately — in favour of doing their best to maintain services, which people do notice immediately when they're not adequate.

For example, no one notices when the city declines to widen a road from two to four lanes. But if the city stopped filling potholes or spilling vats of insecticide into pools of standing water, angry, mosquito-bitten motorists would converge on the council chamber with pitchforks in their pockmarked hands.

After his dire pre-budget warnings, Mayor Brian Bowman certainly has the attention of the Pallister government. The intended audience may in fact have been the premier. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

To be fair to Brian Bowman, Winnipeg is just like every other city in Canada in that it doesn't enjoy the same taxation powers the province or Ottawa have at their disposal. Canadian mayors are not whining when they point out they exist at the funding mercy of their provincial and federal benefactors.

Some time very soon, perhaps next year or the year after, Winnipeg will have no choice but to begin cutting services in addition to holding off on infrastructure spending.

This dire situation, however, did not materialize this year. The city has either been putting off major infrastructure projects or monkeying around with its infrastructure priorities for decades.

'Priority' projects delayed

Sam Katz was still in his first term as mayor when city engineers warned the Louise Bridge needs to be replaced. Thirteen years later, there's still no plan to replace the ancient span connecting Point Douglas with Elmwood.

Likewise, there's no money put away to replace the Arlington Bridge, extend Chief Peguis Trail to the west or build the East Transitway from downtown to Transcona, despite those projects having long been declared priorities.

Instead, the city went ahead and sunk $98 million into the Waverley underpass, which was lower on a now-outdated priority list, and borrowed $100 million to buy an old and unwanted Canada Post warehouse and convert it into a police headquarters that remains rife with problems.

Brian Bowman signed off on the first move. Sam Katz championed the other. And neither mayor was successful in lobbying Ottawa and Manitoba to cough up cash for the city's largest infrastructure project, the upgrades at the North End Water Pollution Control Centre, which are now expected to cost $1.8 billion.

Some help for the city may be coming. The troubled Trudeau government needs to dole out infrastructure goodies prior to what could be a tough re-election struggle. And Bowman certainly has the attention of the Pallister government, even if he may not have its respect.

Ultimately, it appears Bowman had a very small audience in mind when he engaged in pre-budget theatrics: the premier and no one else.


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.


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