‘Tough winter’ eats up majority of Winnipeg’s 2022 snow clearing budget in just 2 months

Snow and ice wreaked havoc not only on vehicles and drivers in Winnipeg this past winter, but also on the city’s budget.

The cost of clearing roads and sidewalks went $28 million over the dedicated amount for January and February alone, according to a report to the city’s finance committee.

The cost of clearing in March has yet to be tallied.

“It was an unprecedented winter,” said Coun. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan), the new chair of the city’s finance committee, in an interview Thursday.

“We have to keep moving throughout the winter,” he said. “We make decisions on snow not based on finances, but in terms of keeping our city open. And this was a tough one.”

The city has a $35-million budget to clear snow and ice for all of 2022. It’s unclear how much of that was dedicated to the first two months of the year, but a $28-million dent doesn’t leave much breathing room for next winter.

“It’s a big shortfall to start dealing with, but it’s not unusual that we will go over. But I think it’s probably among the highest that we’ve seen this early in the year,” said Browaty.

The report will be presented at the April 12 finance committee meeting — Browaty’s first as chair, after Coun. Scott Gillingham stepped down from the role in advance of a likely run for the mayor’s office.

Extra costs due to inflation

Though the city’s financial department has built in plans to keep the city afloat when COVID-19 has already cost $160 million, there are other factors city staff are watching closely that could throw off their plans.

Inflation and the rising cost of gas alone could force Winnipeg Transit to go over its fuel budget by $6 million to $9 million by the end of the year, according to the report.

In an email, Mayor Brian Bowman expressed disappointment that no further transit help was offered in the federal government’s 2022 budget, unveiled Thursday.

The city’s finance committee report also suggests hope for help through federal funding that was announced in February, but that funding requires provincial matching.

That federal money “is an avenue the City of Winnipeg will be pursuing once available,” Bowman said in his Thursday email.

“I’m hoping to see provincial and federal governments unite in their support of the largest ongoing loss the city has suffered as a result of the global pandemic.”

The finance committee will also discuss the status of the North District police station, to be built at the Old Ex Grounds.

Though city staff expect the cost to remain at f $27.9 million, there are some challenges ahead.

“Construction costs remain volatile as COVID-19 and global supply chain issues continue to impact some development projects,” wrote Brad Erickson, the city’s manager of municipal accommodations.

For that reason, he and other staff are asking councillors to defer decision-making matters related to the project’s budget until the construction tender process has been completed. That should happen this spring, Erickson writes.

There’s a ticking clock on the police station project, according to the report. The current station on Hartford Avenue is “currently operating well beyond its intended service life, and the building is considered to be in poor condition,” Erickson writes.

If the condition of the building gets so bad that it has to be shut down, the police service will have to stop working completely at that location and redeploy staff and operations completely, according to the report.

Education property tax rebates a question mark

Winnipeg’s financial staff are also scratching their heads about how much a move in the provincial budget will cost them.

The province committed in its budget last year to offering education property tax credits to some Manitobans in 2022, but depending on how it goes for this year, that could cost the city.

“The province has not yet confirmed if the percentage of the rebate will change, or if there will be any changes in the amount of the [tax credit],” wrote Tim Austin, a city assessor.

He adds it’s unclear if the rebate applies to federally owned properties, and there’s currently a dispute between the province and Ottawa about this.

The federal government is normally exempt from paying property taxes to the city for federally owned properties, but instead makes payments in lieu of property taxes.

The dispute between the province and Ottawa centres around the fact the province has said federally owned properties are not eligible for the education property tax rebate.

“If the issue is not resolved between the two parties it is anticipated that the 2022 [payment in lieu of property taxes] … will be reduced to cover the amount of the rebate for both 2021 and 2022,” the city report says. 

It’s estimated that would cost the city $2.5 million — the total rebate the federal government has indicated should be, or has been, applied to its properties, the report says.

“If this does occur, the city would be looking to the province of Manitoba to reimburse the city for this amount,” the report states.