Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Deck the (City) Hall

Dear Winnipeg,

I have a deep, dark secret I’ve been hiding from you. And in the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, I figured now would be a good time to come clean.

I love Christmas movies.


I always have.

And not just the classics, like A Christmas Story, Home Alone or Elf. [What’s not to love about singing loud for all to hear? Buddy’s right. It IS the best way to spread Christmas cheer!]

You, know, like a normal person.

But alas, I am not that person.

You see, I love ALL Christmas movies, even the bad ones. [Like my children.]

One might even say, especially the bad ones. [Like my Big Voodoo Daddies.]

Basically, if it has a holiday pun in the title, I will watch it. And I will love every minute of it. [The Knight Before Christmas? Yes, please!]

But in between holiday-binging on this junk food for the brain, I do sometimes watch stuff that is actually good for me.

And this week, I decided to re-watch a personal favourite of mine that I hadn’t watched in a long time. And you know how sometimes a beloved piece of epic filmography that you thought you knew so well, will sometimes surprise you with something you never noticed before?

That happened to me this week. Here’s the screen cap of the specific scene:

“Large tax increases and/or large cuts in services” didn’t need to be in bold for me to notice.

Yes, I know many people will instantly recognize that infamous scene out of Charles Marohn’s Curbside Chat.

Ok, maybe not as many people as would recognize this scene:

♫ I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes… ♫

But if you don’t know Chuck, let me introduce you. He is a professional engineer AND a city planner. And he is the founder of the non-profit organization Strong Towns, an international movement dedicated to making communities across the United States and Canada financially strong and resilient. He’s been doing this for over a decade.

And pretty much all of what I have been writing to you since I started last December has been based on the Strong Towns concepts put forward by Chuck and his team of contributors.

So if you’ve been reading my letters and thinking “Boy, this stuff makes a lot of sense!”, you should know that people much smarter than me thought of it first. I’ve only been taking the time to apply it specifically to Winnipeg.

[And if you thought “Boy, this stuff makes absolutely no sense! Are these words even in English?!”, then blame Netflix for putting together such a good playlist that it rotted my brain.]

Anyways, back to the Curbside Chat.

Coming out of the first phase of City budget consultations, after repeatedly being told that “difficult decisions” will have to be made between large tax increases and/or large service cuts kind, it’s probably obvious why that slide stood out. But it’s what Chuck said next that really hit home for me:

As long as we continue to build in a way that is functionally insolvent, there’s no way that our cities are going to avoid insolvency.

As long we continue to build in a way that gives us an illusion of wealth today in exchange for enormous long term liabilities, there’s no way that our cities are going to avoid default.

Whether it’s a hard default, like we see in places like Detroit, and Stockton, and San Bernardino. Or whether it’s a soft default like we see in thousands of cities across this country, including this one here, where we lay off police and firefighters, we close libraries, we shut off streetlights, we put off critical maintenance. Because we simply don’t have the money.

— Charles Marohn of Strong Towns

Yeah. Making cuts to police and firefighting. Closing libraries. Shutting off streetlights.

It’s like he’s talking about you, Winnipeg. Right now.

Except that presentation was to the city of Rockford, Illinois. And it was over 3 years ago.

But it was the same presentation he’s made to countless other cities across North America over the last decade:

Brainerd. Roswell. Austin. Seattle. Hays. Ponderay. Boston. Oakland. Sioux Falls. Washington DC. Savannah. Peterborough. Vancouver.

What do they know that we don’t?

Well, for one, they are now coming to grips with the fact that they have been participating in a giant Ponzi scheme for the past 7 decades. Winnipeg? Not so much.

And rather than using this budget crisis to reflect and learn, and to become more financially resilient, we’re still pursuing old approaches and priorities that will continue to make us poorer and more fragile. [Fra-GEE-lay… must be Italian!]

So what should you do if you want your city to make better decisions?

If you have hours of spare time, you could start by re-reading this letter I sent you last March on budgets. Or this one from last January on Ponzi schemes. Or better yet, just start at the beginning and re-read all of them!

But, if you’ve only got a single hour to spare, you could watch one of the many Curbside Chats that are on YouTube. Here’s the one from Rockford again.

Or if 22 minutes is more your style, you can watch this little series of very short videos produced by Strong Towns, which gives you the lowdown on the basics.

Or if you want to spend less than 5 minutes on this, just watch the third video from that series. It clocks in at a mere 4:43 and gets to the crux of why we have no money, and never will if we simply continue down this path.

And finally, if you are just so busy that you can barely spare 60 seconds, please spend that time buying a copy of the Strong Towns book for a loved one this Christmas:

This would be an especially lovely gift if your loved one happens to be a City Councillor or the Mayor. Just sayin’.

[Also, if your loved one is me. I would love this book.]

And, in case you’re wondering, our public library will have a couple of copies, so if that’s your jam, you might want to get down there while we still have a library.

Then, once you’ve done all that, you can rest easy and go back to watching Santa Baby 2: Christmas Maybe.

[Yes, it is every bit as good as the original.]

Talk to you in 2020,

Elmwood Guy