Dozen of delegations weigh in — remotely — on proposed City of Winnipeg budget

The delegations — all 53 of them — lined up digitally Friday to be streamed into Winnipeg city council’s executive policy committee meeting on the proposed 2021 budget. 

Councillors who arrived in person for the meeting early Friday morning were greeted by bundles of wrapped boxes outside city hall, along with a sign featuring the famous Grinch carrying a sack labelled “2021 budget.”

The protest outside city hall was courtesy of the activist group Budget For All, which was among the groups that voiced opinions at Friday’s committee meeting on the budget.

The city is in the midst of discussions around the second year of its multi-year budget program. Last year, the city approved a four-year budget, so in the current budget process, there are only a few genuine departures from what was previously outlined.

If passed by council, the 2021 budget will include a property tax increase of 2.33 per cent, $152 million earmarked for road improvements, a commitment to a $50-million recreation and library investment strategy over three years, and a $3-million grant program for small businesses and not-for-profits. 

The Winnipeg Police Service would get a two per cent increase in funding but must find just over $5 million in savings to cover a shortfall after an arbitrator ruled against the city on changing officer’s pensions.

Regardless of final decisions, a massive dollop of federal money dedicated to cities to help them manage the affects of the COVID-19 pandemic will assure the city balances its books.

Mixed reactions

A few delegations told the executive policy committee they liked what they see in the budget.

Manitoba Heavy Construction president Chris Lorenc gave a thumbs up to a commitment to road renewal.

“It’s essential we have a transportation network sustainable to our needs for economic growth,” Lorenc said via Zoom.

Overwhelmingly, though, delegations expressed displeasure with budget proposals.

Several said they want to see more funding for community and recreational services, Winnipeg Transit and the arts. Many asked councillors to find the money from cuts, or at least a freeze, to the police budget.

Budget For All spokesperson Chantale Garand told CBC News a cut of 10 per cent — or roughly $30 million — from the police budget would free up funding for programming that could bring down the crime rate. 

“I think that’s a great starting point. I don’t think that’s the end point,” she said.

“The amount we could do with our life-sustaining services and community services with $30 million is astronomical.”

Budget For All’s Chantal Garand says a 10 per cent cut to the police budget, with money redirected to recreational services and other programs, would be a ‘good start.’ (Jaison Empson/CBC )

A very specific request for funding came from Ka Ni Kanichihk Inc. 

The Indigenous social enterprise agency offers mentoring and education supports to Winnipeg women and families. It’s looking for $500,000 over two years to increase the number of classrooms, meeting area and daycare spaces at its McDermot Avenue facility.

Advocates also called for more money for active transportation and Transit, a library budget increase, and a more environmentally sustainable city.

Budget ‘responsive’ to Winnipeggers: Bowman

Faced with so many requests from such a broad range of organizations, Mayor Brian Bowman told reporters he feels the proposed budget strikes a balance.

“I think we’ve built a budget update that is responsive to the majority of Winnipeggers. There are folks on the extreme right and extreme left and in between as well … that have views and they are providing their input,” Bowman said. 

The mayor said he’s not prepared to support an across-the-board 10 per cent cut to the police service budget.

“We have to be responsible. We have to make sure that when you call 911 there is someone there to answer the call.… The advocates that are saying defund or abolish the police aren’t saying what’s the alternative,” Bowman said.

The mayor says he has supported efforts to find ways to reduce the cost of policing and alternatives to having officers go to every call.