Manitoba

Budget proposals draw dozens of groups and residents opposing cuts

35 delegations registered at city hall to voice their worries about possible cuts to everything from libraries and pools to fire fighting and community clubs.

Libraries, pools, community clubs and fire services on list of possible cuts

Filip, 6, urges Winnipeg city councillors not to close Westwood Library as part of budget cuts this year. (Submitted by Kevin Klein)

A simple hand-drawn plea by a six-year-old may not be the most sophisticated political message, but it cuts to the heart of the budget process at Winnipeg's city hall.

"Please don't take away my library," Filip, 6, wrote under a picture of a yellow building with a red roof.

Coun. Kevin Klein passed along a copy of the request by the young resident, who opposes the closing of the Westwood Library as part of budget proposals for the city's community services department.

Klein, the councillor for Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood, was among the dozens of budget delegations who came Wednesday morning to the committee overseeing protection, community services and parks.

Several city pools, libraries, community clubs and rinks could be shuttered or see hours reduced; a fire hall could be closed and there are no provisions for a new one in a booming suburb of the city.

Hundreds of proposals have been made by senior city staff in all departments to meet tough budget targets in Mayor Brian Bowman's new four-year budget process. They have drawn fire from unions, community groups, residents and councillors.

Departments' targets are all under the rate of inflation as the city aims to keep the property tax increase to 2.33 per cent, all dedicated to road renewal and rapid transit.

Grant cuts would impact city's most vulnerable people, anti-poverty advocates say. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Under the targets the city released earlier this month, community services like libraries would be held to a 0.5 per cent increase in spending per year.

Alex Forrest, the president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, warned of the "negative costs" of the cuts proposed by the department.

Forrest, who calls the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service the "busiest fire department in Canada" while being the least-funded, said the "bare bones department" has shortages in training, maintenance, equipment and inspections.

"We don't have enough fire trucks," Forrest told councillors, saying there are 16 trucks "past their best due date."

A 1.7 per cent budget increase for the fire department prompted senior managers to propose closing a fire hall in St. Boniface, cancelling a new class of firefighters and not replacing four captains after they retire.

There is also no provision in the budget for a new fire hall in the city's fast-growing suburb Waverely West.

"This is insanity!" Forrest said.

Coun. Janice Lukes represents the area and echoed the union leader.

"Waverley West is the size of Brandon.… Clearly there is a need for fire protection," Lukes told the committee.

'Please increase my taxes'

Downtown resident Melissa Bowman Wilson told councillors her two children extensively use the city's transit services, public libraries and after-school programs and pools. 

Downtown resident Melissa Bowman Wilson says in a choice between cutting community services and raising taxes, she'll take the tax increase 'please.' (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Cuts to grants and community services proposed in the budget proposals would have a direct impact on her family, Bowman Wilson said, urging the committee to consider hiking her taxes to save the programs.

"Please, please increase property taxes to maintain community services," she said.

Some advocates told councillors to cut police services in order to save grant programs, libraries, pools and social services.

Others warned the budget proposals would impact the city's homeless, stall efforts to improve public art and impair Winnipeg's urban forest. 

New process 'ass-backward'

Several councillors expressed frustration with the new budget process, which set tough funding targets and has bureaucrats offering difficult choices to meet them.

"How do we decide what to cut when we don't see the full story?" Transcona Coun. Shawn Nason asked.

Nason, whose ward holds one of the pools that could be closed, suggested the new budget process should have begun with community consultations before the cuts were proposed.

"It's ass-backwards," Nason told the committee.

Committee chair Sherri Rollins told reporters Nason's view was "fair comment," especially when it came to strategic planning by the city, but cautioned the proposals are just that — proposals — and there is more to come before the budget is set.

"This is a marathon and not a sprint," Rollins said. "We aren't even at a draft budget. We are at budget proposals from some departments."

Public submissions for the city budget will continue through the week. 

In the next phase, councillors on various committees will grapple with recommendations on what to save or cut before final proposals are considered and a budget is set for a vote in front of full council in March.

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