140-plus delegations queue at city hall for chance to speak about Winnipeg budget

People wishing to talk to Winnipeg's executive policy committee about the city budget waited metres apart from each other on Wednesday, seated in chairs in a lobby outside council chambers.

Concerns about COVID-19 change procedures but don't dampen opposition to budget

Delegates to city budget meeting practice social distancing while waiting to speak to councillors. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Despite public health officials discouraging gatherings and encouraging social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak, the list of delegations wishing to speak about the city budget runs 14 pages and should keep city hall busy through a long day.

Some with an emotional message in a time of anxiety.

They came to speak against cuts to arts funding, shorter library hours, fewer grants to community groups, the end of the U-Pass bus pass for post-secondary students, parking fees — the list is long.

Mayor Brian Bowman and finance chair Scott Gillingham have defended their budget multiple times, saying the city must come to grips with a growing structural deficit and a government that has yet to become lean and spend responsibly.

'What is wrong with you guys?'

Fighting back tears, business owner Obby Khan told councillors the pandemic forced him to lay off 68 employees at his six stores in the last three days.

Dale Driedger, the landlord at one of Khan's businesses, stopped him while he was moving product from one store to another, said Khan, a former Blue Bomber football player.

Khan was clearly upset.

Restaurant owner Ibrahim 'Obby' Khan challenged councillors to support business owners in an emotional plea. Khan has laid off 68 staff because of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC )

Driedger asked Khan to wait for a moment and returned with a cheque equivalent to two months of rent and utilities that Khan pays for the space.

"Let's just get through this together," Driedger told him, he said Wednesday.

"Why does he care about me more than you do?" Khan asked EPC members.

Khan and dozens of business owners in the Exchange District have asked councillors to change the area's parking fees and fix problems with bike paths that have clogged the streets and removed parking spaces.

At a mid-day break, Mayor Bowman defended his administration's focus on investments in the city's downtown, calling it "historic," and said the calls for parking rate relief was coming from two different sides.

"We heard on one hand we need to just reverse parking rates and on the next hand we need to long-term plan parking rates," Bowman said.

A socially distant political process

People wishing to talk to Winnipeg's executive policy committee about the city budget waited metres apart from each other on Wednesday, seated in chairs in a lobby outside council chambers.

Inside, councillors on the executive policy committee sat in every second seat around the circular council table.

In the council chamber gallery, tags on chairs indicated where people could sit and maintain distance from each other. People were encouraged to watch the proceedings live streamed, but at one point the system crashed.

Normally the gallery would be bursting to capacity, but emergency procedures in response to the coronavirus pandemic have prompted a new way of doing budget democracy at Winnipeg's city hall.

Bowman has repeatedly said continuing the budget process was inline with directions from health officials and necessary to keep city business moving. 

City councillors opposed to the budget spoke first and Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood Coun. Kevin Klein fired the morning's first shot, questioning how the city has prepared for the economic fallout from the health emergency. The province at this point has 15 confirmed and presumptive cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, a disease that's killed nine Canadians.

"We as a city, as a leadership, we are not ready. There is no consideration [in the budget] for economic events," Klein told members of the executive policy committee, complaining about opportunities to participate in the debate about the budget.

Mynarski's Ross Eadie followed, blasting the "cut, cut, cuts at services" in the financial plan.

Pleas to stop cuts from large to small

Among the proposals in the budget are approximately $8 million in cuts to community and arts organizations, reduced library hours and the end to the U-Pass bus pass program.

Rick Lees, the director of the Main Street Project, called his organization "the cheap date" of all the presenters, looking for a restoration of $10,000 for it's mainstay residents program.

Main Street Project director Rick Lees hopes the city reconsiders a grant cut for his organization. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

"What confuses us is at the same time they created new money for safe spaces [$ 1 million over four years]. And so our question is — what is a safe space"?

Lees asked councillors to reconsider the cut to his organization and others such as Rossbrook House and take the money from the planned investment in a future 24-7 safe space initiative.

Some of the submissions may not fall on deaf ears.

Mayor Bowman told reporters at a break there was room for changes before his executive policy committee sent along the budget to city council for a vote on Friday.

"That's why we hear from delegations," Bowman said.