City council narrowly passes 2021 budget loaded with significant federal support

The 2021 budget was passed by Winnipeg’s city council with a tighter margin than in recent times.

The vote was 9-7 in favour of the operating budget, and 11-5 for capital spending. 

The narrow margin came from the usually understated voice of council Speaker Devi Sharma, who broke her consistent record of supporting budgets by voting “no” on the operating portion of the 2021 budget. 

The Old Kildonan councillor said the structure of how the budget is pulled together and the input that’s gathered for it must be “greatly improved.”

Sharma declined an interview with media following the vote.

Old Kildonan councillor and speaker Devi Sharma departed from years of voting ‘yes’ on previous budgets by voting against the 2021 operating budget. (Darin Morash/CBC )

Many of the major spending commitments this year are locked into a multi-year budget process, which shortens the list of what might have normally made headlines — either cuts to programs or services, or new funding initiatives.

Feds show the city the money

This would be a completely different budget were it not for $74.5 million from Ottawa’s Federal Safe Restart program.

It’s split into $42.2 million for COVID-19 operating costs and $32.3 million for losses from decreased ridership on public transit. 

Mayor Brian Bowman admitted there would be many more “difficult decisions” without the federal funding. 

Winnipeg’s roads will get upgraded and repaired to the tune of $152 million.

There’s a $50 million commitment to libraries and recreational facilities — courtesy of a grant from the provincial government — and $7.6 million set aside to allow deferrals of property and business tax payments.

There’s also a wellness fund to help residents get through the effects of the partial lockdown prompted by the pandemic.

The police and fire service budgets get increases of two per cent, but the Winnipeg Police Service has to find $5 million to cover a shortfall from a failed effort to change officer’s pensions.

Business taxes are frozen at 4.8 per cent and property taxes will go up 2.33 per cent — the same increase as the last several years, which is dedicated to infrastructure improvements.

Delegations spoke to budget

There were four delegations who spoke before councillors weighed in on the budget.

Representatives from the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association and the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce said they liked what they saw in the city’s spending this year — money for roads and infrastructure, and some support for small business with no increases in their taxes.

Last week more than 50 delegations appeared in front of the mayor’s executive policy committee to blast the budget for not cutting spending to the Winnipeg Police Service, calling for the money to instead support community services and other programs.

As council prepared to vote Wednesday, it heard heard from community development activists Marianne Cerilli and Steve Snyder, who spoke against the budget. Both called for the city to improve consultation on how it spends, and reminded them of their obligations to all Winnipeggers. 

“How will keeping every budget stagnant except for police and fire [services] improve prosperity for people?” Snyder asked the councillors. 

Finance chair Scott Gillingham acknowledged there was room for improvement but defended the budget and how it was put together.

“There is a lot of the budget that meets the needs of residents in all the wards of our city,” the St. James councillor said.

A number of councillors who are not part of the executive policy committee were having no part in approving the budget — a common thread among them being a charge that there is simply not enough collaboration in the budget process.

Coun. Vivian Santos (Point Douglas) — who also voted against the operating budget — delivered an impassioned speech to council on where the city and its budget was failing residents in terms of poverty, health and well-being.

“If you listen to our community we would have heard loud and clear … they are asking for a socially balanced budget as well as fiscally balanced,” Santos said. 

Process not inclusive, councillors say

“There is no way humanly possible way that in seven business days, one can do justice to scrutinizing the budget,” Waverley West Coun. Janice Lukes said, decrying the power EPC councillors have over input into the process.

Lukes says the model in Winnipeg is nothing like the model of governance in most major Canadian cities. 

Coun. Shawn Nason says the budget process falls short on innovation. (John Einarson/CBC )

Coun. Shawn Nason (Transcona) agreed the process provides few ways for participation for non-EPC members and didn’t see “partnerships in this budget.” 

“Our budget process lacks innovation and is just a continued pattern of building on stale thinking,” Nason charged.

Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood’s Kevin Klein shrugged off the idea the city was balancing its budget and investing record amounts on infrastructure.

“We are investing in record numbers, but somebody else gave it to us,” Klein said, pointing to federal and provincial funding. He also called the budget process non-inclusive and his residents “weren’t being heard” on issues such as crime and recovering from the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Bowman defended the transparency of the budget process telling reporters there was “unprecedented access to financial information” for all councillors, and they could involve themselves by introducing “thoughtful” amendments. 

At the break before the votes were tallied, Bowman told reporters everyone’s vote on council “is equal, including my own.”