Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

It’s Like Deja Vu All Over Again

“Something about this feels REALLY familiar…”

Dear Winnipeg,

This morning I went to City Hall to speak to Council about the dumpster fire that is the budget. Here’s what I said:

Good morning Madam Chair, Mayor, esteemed Councillors,

By now you probably know who I am, as I have presented before you, either at Council or Committee, many times already. Several of you have even taken the time to meet with me, and for that, I am very grateful.

However, in looking at today’s proposed budget, I still get the overwhelming impression that I have not gotten through to you. I’ve tried coming at it from many different angles, many different perspectives. On top of that, over the past 5 months, literally hundreds of Winnipeggers have also come here asking for much the same thing. And yet, it looks like we’ve barely moved the needle.

So, in preparing for today, in trying to figure out still one more way to explain the same thing to you in a way that might finally spur you to action, I decided to go back to the beginning.

You see, today, March 20th, marks the 1-year anniversary of the first time I came to speak to you. I had come to speak to Council in opposition to the 2019 proposed budget.

To refresh your memory, let me give you a few highlights of that presentation:

We have $35 billion in infrastructure.
At 4%, that means we need to set aside $1.4 billion/year [for infrastructure replacement]. Every year. Forever.

So, even if we cut EVERY SINGLE city service, fired ALL the staff and forced all of you to work for free… we still don’t have enough just for infrastructure replacement.

Austerity can’t save us. The math tells us we’re already way past that.
That’s why I can’t support a “business as usual” budget, where we make “difficult decisions” on which services to cut, and which infrastructure to neglect, this year.

It’s time to have a real, honest conversation about how we got here, and how we’ll proceed going forward.

And we have to do it now, because next year, you’ll be approving our first 4-year budget. Missing this window means kicking the can down the road another 5 years, and hoping it doesn’t all go south before then.

We have 9 months to have the most important city-wide kitchen table conversation in generations, if not ever.

So did we have that conversation? Nope.

And what kind of budget did you put together? One with “difficult decisions” on which services to cut, and which infrastructure to neglect.

The same “business as usual” budget, but now in a 4-year package!

We are stuck in a never-ending cycle of decline, where every new year presents a new list of services to cut from, and a new list of infrastructure to neglect or abandon. Breaking out of that cycle will take a new way of doing things. Business as usual won’t cut it.

But we should already know that.

Despite many repeated warnings from our accountants since at least 2014 regarding our unsustainable budget practices, why is it that we are being presented with yet another budget that draws on the same old unsustainable bag o’ tricks?

– Expenditure reductions ($118 million)
– Increased debt ($193 million)
– Transfers from reserves ($17 million from the Fiscal Stabilization Reserve)
– Deferral of maintenance ($47 million in reduced capital spending)

And I’m not trying to be a jerk here, but if you need to change the rules governing the emergency reserve fund so you can withdraw from it, like you’re proposing to do today, can you really claim that this budget is balanced?

Like the City’s accountants told us back in 2014:
“It is clear we can no longer continue doing the same things, in the same way.”
—2014 City of Winnipeg Annual Financial Report, page 6

Doing so is guaranteed to keep making things worse, with more cuts every year, further and further into the cycle of decline we go, until there’s nothing left but the crushing financial weight of massive unfunded police pensions and an ever-growing number of crumbling roads.

That was Detroit, and this will be Winnipeg. Detroit just got there first.

Yet, instead of a plan to improve things, we have doubled down on doing the same things, the same way. Quadrupled down actually.

And in doing so, we will continue to make our city worse in every measurable way, including financial.

Finding it too easy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% in 10 years? Good, now we’ll only have 6 years.

Finding it too easy to fund all our services on current revenue? Good, now we’ll have an extra $200 million in debt to pay interest on.

Finding it too easy to pay for unpredictable emergencies like the October storm and COVID-19? Good, now try it with an emergency fund balance that’s 15% lower.

And the most frustrating thing about all of this? It’s that a lot of the hard work has already been done!

We’ve already put together:
– OurWinnipeg
– Complete Communities Direction Strategy
– Sustainable Winnipeg Direction Strategy
– Sustainable Transportation Direction Strategy
– Sustainable Water & Waste Direction Strategy
– Financial Management Plan
– Climate Action Plan
– Pedestrian & Cycling Strategies
– Transportation Master Plan
– Public Art Policy
– Economic Opportunity Framework
– And many, many more

And yet, we have before us a budget that is completely disconnected from all of these. Rather than letting our policies, values and stated priorities direct our budget process, we’ve just relied on the same things, the same way, ensuring that we will meet NONE of our goals as a city. Just more decline, and more cuts and more neglect to come in the future.

Our City’s Vision is:

To be a vibrant and healthy city which places its highest priority on quality of life for all its citizens.

And that sounds great.

But, service cuts do not improve quality of life. Increased debt does not improve quality of life. Deferred maintenance and spending our rainy-day fund when it isn’t raining, do not improve quality of life.

So what do we do about the complete dumpster fire that is this budget?

Well, at the eleventh hour like we are, I think the best we can hope for is a mulligan for Year 1:

– Increase taxes by enough to avoid all service cuts and dipping into reserves
– Reduce road spending by enough to avoid borrowing money

This won’t make us a better city, but at least we won’t be worse off.

Then, we get right to work over the next 10 months to fix the other three years all together.

But what do I know? I’m just one guy from Elmwood.

Well, a very wise person once told me that for every person that shows up to speak to their elected officials, there are a thousand others who feel the same way, but didn’t have the will or the means to do so.

So in wondering if one person can really make a difference, always remember that I don’t come here speaking for myself. My voice is the voice of 1,000 people.

And when we look at the hundreds of Winnipeggers who have come here throughout this budget process, they are the voices of hundreds of thousands of Winnipeggers who are saying this budget is a failure.

It fails to address climate change.

It fails to address the structural deficit.

It fails to place its highest priority on quality of life for all its citizens.

Hundreds of thousands of Winnipeggers are saying that you have failed in your role as our elected officials.

So, is anybody in this room listening? Or did last year’s cuts include the cord on this microphone?

Thank you.

— Me, today at City Council’s budget meeting

Will it change anything? Hard to say. The past few months have been truly exhausting… and so far, it feels like for mostly no effect. Not to mention the fact that the Councillor for St.Vital seems to think that public delegations shouldn’t happen at all… after all, according to him, they had their say on election day!

However, over the past year, I have met a ton of really smart, really cool people who care a whole lot about our fair city. I think that in itself has made this all worth it.

In the end, maybe it’s still possible to make meaningful change, even if it takes longer than we thought it would.

Stay healthy,

Elmwood Guy