Winnipeg group calls for tax increases to avoid service cuts, but city hall not buying in

As dozens of delegations plead against proposed budget cuts, Winnipeg's Social Planning Council calls for an array of tax increases and fees to stop the trim before they happen.

Social Planning Council drops alternative budget on executive policy committee

An alternative budget, created by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, would raise taxes and establish toll roads into Winnipeg. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC )

As dozens of groups lobby Winnipeg city councillors against budget cuts, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has created another option – one that calls for a spread of increases to taxes and fees.

The alternative budget would raise millions in revenue and would seek to prevent dramatic cuts to services proposed by city departments to meet targets below the cost of inflation set by Mayor Brian Bowman's budget team.

The proposals would see property and business taxes rise by five per cent, a city-wide levy introduced on parking spaces, an increase to impact fees on new housing developments and a toll charged to commuters into Winnipeg.

"We simply don't have enough money right now to afford what we need to be able to afford," said Kate Kehler, the head of Winnipeg's Social Planning Council.

The Social Planning Council's Kate Kehler (centre) says tax increases are needed to protect the city's most marginalized citizens. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC )

The group joined unions and other activists outside city hall Thursday before the alternative budget was presented to Bowman's executive policy committee.

The new four-year budget process has seen multi-hour sessions of residents and lobby groups argue against proposed cuts to transit, pools, rinks and community clubs and fewer police officers and social services.

The alternative budget projects revenues of $34 million from the parking lot levy, $55 million from the toll or commuter charge, another $2.8 million from a five per cent increase in business taxes and $28.5 million more from the increase in property taxes – which would be on top of an already promised 2.33 per cent tax Bowman has committed to at the last election.

The Centre for Policy Alternative's budget takes the position there is room to increase property taxes because Winnipeg's rate is currently the lowest in the country.

Kehler says low taxes are used as a marketing tool for the city but comes at the expense of many residents.

"That doesn't help the most marginalized in our city because we need to be able to provide the public services that they need," Kehler said Thursday.

When asked how a commuter fee or toll roads could be sold to people who live outside the city, Kehler says she hopes they would see the logic in the fee.

"If they are not actually part of the tax base that pays for the services they come in and use, we are hoping that they realize that they need to support those or [the services] won't be here," Kehler said.

'Not the solution' says city councillor

Waverley West Councillor Janice Lukes acknowledges there may be a time for a one or two per cent property tax increase, but not until "so much deadwood is weeded out."

Lukes says the city operates too many outdated and aging facilities that haven't been rationalized for years and $18 million in grants that should be scrutinized closely before any tax increase is considered.

Councillor Janice Lukes says toll roads are not the solution and tax increases should come after deep reviews of city grants and properties. (CBC)

As for putting up toll roads, that's "not a solution," she said.

"There is no way we should be taxing people who drive in and out of the capital … we are stronger as a region if we work together," Lukes said.

Finance chair Scott Gillingham says it's too early in the budget process to begin considering tax increases, but offered a word of caution he heard recently at a community event with some seniors in his St. James ward.

"One conversation with one lady sticks out. She was paying attention to the budget and all she said to me was, I can't afford any more. You can't raise my taxes, I can't afford anymore." Gillingham said.

Gillingham says there are other voices that may not make it to city hall but need to be considered when considering how to balance services and revenues.

Mayor Brian Bowman sent a statement to CBC reiterating that he would "not support tax increases above 2.33 per cent and looks forward to hearing tangible recommendations" in the next steps of the budget process.

The next step will see councillors on various committees combine recommendations from staff on cuts and suggestions from the public on what to keep and add their own input.

The draft budget is scheduled to be tabled in the new year.