Winnipeg budget gives more money to roads, less cash to community groups

The City of Winnipeg is cutting back on grants to community groups by 10 per cent, cutting back on 14 Winnipeg Transit routes and closing the Millennium Library on Sundays as part of a budget that maintains most city services.

Feared catastrophic cuts fail to materialize, but library hours and transit service will be cut back

'City facilities that are open right now will not close,' Mayor Brian Bowman says. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg is cutting grants to community groups by 10 per cent, cutting back on 14 Winnipeg Transit routes and closing the Millennium Library on Sundays as part of a budget that maintains most city services.

Winnipeg's $1.15-billion spending plan for 2020 holds a $25-million increase in the city's road-repair budget, the introduction of a low-income bus pass and a hiring spree at Winnipeg Transit to handle increased bus service in southwest Winnipeg when the entire length of the Southwest Transitway comes online in April.

More draconian cuts floated in fall by city officials as part of a new four-year budget-planning process failed to materialize, as senior city finance officials cobbled together another budget where most departments will enjoy modest spending increases.

"City facilities that are open right now will not close," Mayor Brian Bowman promised during a budget news conference. 

"Our priority was keeping the lights on in libraries and pools."

The most significant cut in the budget is the 10 per cent decrease in community grants, which will drop $8 million to $69 million this year.

For example, the Winnipeg Arts Council's grant will be cut $493,000, the grant to Rossbrook House drops $26,000 and the city will give the Main Street project $10,000 less this year.

City council finance chair Scott Gillingham (St. James) said these cuts were among the difficult decisions the city had to make this year.

"The City of Winnipeg needs to make sure that we are prioritizing those services that are core to our mandate first," Gillingham said. The four-year plan gives community groups certainty about future funding, he said.

No libraries will be closed, although library hours will be cut back. The Millennium Library in downtown Winnipeg and five others will no longer open on Sundays.

These cutbacks disappointed activists who lobbied the city over the past few months.

"Everything we're doing around libraries is draconian and unnecessary and really doesn't serve this community," said Joe Curnow, a spokesperson for a group called Millennium For All.

Recreational facilities also escaped mostly unscathed this year. The city plans to sell off John Blumberg Golf Course, which is located outside city limits in Headingley, and examine the future of Terry Sawchuk Arena in North Kildonan, which is shuttered right now.

However, in 2021, the city plans to cut leisure services 50 per cent. City staff will spend the next few months deciding which programs to cut from the Leisure Guide.

Bus service on 14 Winnipeg Transit routes also will be reduced, either by scaling back hours or cutting weekend service. This will happen during the same year Transit completely revamps the way it delivers service in southwest Winnipeg.

The downtown Millennium Library will close Sundays. (Google Street View)

More frequent buses are slated to begin running along the spine of the Southwest Transitway in April, with new feeder routes running off the bus corridor. 

Winnipeg Transit will begin offering 30 per cent discounts to low-income passengers on May 1, as council requested last year. Free transit service for kids under 12 will begin in 2021.

Transit also plans to eliminate the U-Pass for university students. The city says students can purchase post-secondary passes that give them 20 per cent discounts. They also may apply for the low-income pass.

Most taxes, spending stay the course

For the seventh straight year, the total pool of property taxes Winnipeg intends to collect will rise 2.33 per cent this year. This will cost the average Winnipeg household $41. 

There will be no frontage-levy hikes for the fourth straight year, while business taxes and growth fees will go down in small increments.

Parking fees will not rise, while the city's water-and-sewer dividend won't increase.

The city also is topping up departmental budgets by amounts roughly equal to the rate of inflation. The Winnipeg Police Service, for example, will see its budget rise $5 million to $304 million. The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service budget will rise $7 million to $209 million.

The city also is banking on revenue that would only materialize if it wins legal challenges against its growth fees and an attempt to change the way police pensions are calculated.

Road repairs up, capital spending down

Motorists concerned about the state of Winnipeg's roads may be pleased by the increased road-repair budget, which will rise $25 million to $130 million.

Chris Lorenc of the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association said he was expecting $131 million, based on previous city projections, but he understands the city had competing priorities.

He said he's more concerned the city is borrowing money to help pay for roads this year — and the interest on that borrowing will eat up part of the roads budget.

"That's why you really have to be careful about the numbers," he said.

Overall, the city is continuing to scale back capital spending, which is all the money the city devotes to repairing roads, buying buses, building bridges and engaging in other major projects or purchases.

The capital budget for 2020 is pegged at $237 million, a drop of $7 million from last year.

The city has stopped, however, slashing the amount of cold, hard cash it transfers to the capital budget. What's known as cash-to-capital will increase $1 million to $22 million.

Mixed reaction to budget

Reaction to the budget split along ideological lines.

Colin Fast, policy director for the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, praised the budget because the city is looking at selling off at least one golf course, shaving a bit more off the business tax and cutting back on community grants.

"We recommended taking a look at the phased-out reduction in some of the grants to community organizations, other than those that are providing a direct service to the city or where there's a long-term contract in place," he said.

The head of the city's largest union called the budget terrible for working-class Winnipeggers.

"This is a budget that the mayor put forward with further reductions in the business taxes, while there's closures of needed services, such as closing libraries on Sundays. It's absurd," said Gord Delbridge, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500.

2020 Winnipeg budget highlights

Operating budget (spending on city services): $1.145 billion, up $20 million from $1.125 billion in 2019. 

Capital budget (tax-supported spending on infrastructure and equipment): $237 million, down $7 million from $244 million in 2019. 

Cash to capital (transfer from operating to capital budget): $22 million, up $1 million from $21 million in 2019.

Road-repair budget: $130 million, an increase of $25 million from 2019.

Property tax hike: 2.33 per cent, unchanged from 2019. This will collect an additional $27 million. The average Winnipeg household will pay an additional $41 this year.

Projected property tax haul in 2018: $635 million, up $27 million from $608 million in 2019. This is the result of the hike and new developments within the city.

Winnipeg Transit budget: $206 million, up $7 million from $199 million in 2019.

U-pass: Eliminated. Students can buy post-secondary passes.

Free transit for kids under 12: Begins in 2021.

Low-income bus pass: 30 per cent discounts to be phased in on May 1.

Police budget: $304 million, up $5 million from $299 million in 2019.

Fire-paramedic budget: $209 million, up $7 million from $202 million in 2019.

Road-repair budget: $130 million, up $25 million from 2019. 

Recreation facility closures: John Blumberg Golf Course in Headingley may be sold and the fate of Terry Sawchuk Arena will be decided.

Millennium and five other libraries: To be closed Sundays.

Grants to community groups: Down $8 million, from $77 million to $69 million.

Waverley West fire-paramedic station: New construction $12.1 million, but that won't start this year.

Fire-paramedic station No. 9 on Rue Marion: To close and be merged with Windsor Park station.

Growth fees: Down five per cent this year. 

Frontage levy hike: Not happening for the fourth straight year.

Water and sewer dividend: No increase this year.

Parking fees: No increase this year.

St. James Civic Centre renewal: $3.7 million.

New Dublin Avenue bridge over Omand's Creek: $3.3 million.



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.