Manitoba

Doom-and-gloom budget scenarios create calls for higher property taxes

Stark predictions about potential City of Winnipeg service cuts have led to a renewed call for property-tax hikes above those promised by the mayor.

Winnipeggers face a choice of service cuts or higher taxes, councillor and union president say

Fire-paramedic Station No. 9 is on the chopping block. Potential cuts like this have some calling for higher property-tax hikes. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Stark predictions about potential City of Winnipeg service cuts have led to a renewed call for property-tax hikes above those promised by the mayor.

As part of a new budget process at city hall, council held a series of special meetings over the past week to give senior officials a chance to state the impact of departmental spending targets.

The police, fire-paramedic service, Winnipeg Transit and water and waste were asked to keep spending hikes within two per cent a year. Public works was asked to keep its spending hike within 1.5 per cent a year, while community services was limited to 0.5 per cent per year.

As a result, councillors were told of service cuts that included fewer police officers, shorter transit operating hours and facility closures that included libraries, pools, hockey arenas and fire-paramedic Station No. 9 in St. Boniface.

Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie said these cuts are entirely arbitrary because they flow solely from Bowman's 2018 campaign pledge to limit property-tax hikes to 2.33 per cent a year — and devote most of the proceeds to road renewals.

"The reality is we have to cut services, if you don't want to raise property taxes. That's life," Eadie said on Saturday after a special meeting of council's protection, community services and parks committee.

"We have no choice. The city's money comes from property taxes, for the most part. The province is not coming to the plate to help us out."

Mayor promised 2.33 per cent, per year

Eadie accused Bowman of misleading the public when he ran for re-election by not disclosing the cash crunch Winnipeg was about to face.

In fact, the mayor gave himself some wiggle room in 2018 when he pledged to limit property-tax hikes to 2.33 per cent, per year. That promise, the mayor said, was contingent upon stable funding from the province.

"We can't envision if there will be real cuts to their support and … we need to be transparent and honest with Winnipeggers [that] it's a risk," Bowman said. 

What constitutes "real cuts" is a matter of semantics. On one hand, the province has not reduced its funding for the city. On the other hand, the province has not provided additional funds for most city departments and that amounts to a de facto funding cut when inflation is taken into account.

Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), who chairs the protection, community services and parks committee, declined to say whether city hall's new budget process — with its attendant doom-and-gloom predictions — is designed to soften up the public for the prospect of higher taxes.

"I'll let the mayor answer," Rollins said, adding that the decision to limit property-tax hikes to 2.33 per cent, per year, rests with Bowman. "That's the direction he gave to those of us that serve on executive policy committee."

The mayor's office did not respond directly to a question about a higher property-tax hike.

"As part of this new multi-year balanced budget process, there will be difficult decisions to be made," Bowman spokesperson Jeremy Davis said in a statement. 

"In this respect, the mayor looks forward to receiving input from councillors on respective standing policy committees in due course."

Rollins hinted she may welcome a higher property-tax hike.

"Definitely, it's tough to not be considering revenue sources," she said, but quickly added it was too early to consider the idea of higher property taxes.

United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest said the city has no choice, at this point.

"Just in the last few years we've had minimal tax increases and that's what led to the demise of this city in infrastructure and services," Forrest said. "This has to stop and I hope that this year council shows leadership and goes for the tax increase that this city needs to be able to be a world-class city."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter 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. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

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