Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

What’s Old Is Not New

Dear Winnipeg,

Am I ever glad to be starting a new year! I must admit I was starting to get pretty depressed in December.

Partly for the common reason, yes. Ten months of global pandemic will definitely wear you down.

But also because I’ve come to realize that’s always how I feel immediately after the City’s annual budget process winds up.

Run down. Depressed. Hopeless.

You don’t need to be a math wizard to know that a falling Net Financial Position means you’re getting poorer, and you need to start doing things differently. Yet, trying to get City Hall to change its ways feels like pushing a boulder uphill.

[Or eating yogurt with chopsticks.]

And when Council passes yet another status quo budget, doing old things while expecting new results by prioritizing the very same things they have for decades, and ignoring most of its own strategic plans, it’s like that boulder has rolled right over you.

[Or you accidentally swallowed one of the chopsticks.]

And that part sucks.

[Although maybe not as much as the next time you’ll see that chopstick…]

Look, I think we can all agree that if your city is not significantly financially better off after a decade of record population growth, then you’re doing it wrong. And if on the other hand, you’re nearly $1 Billion poorer, then you should probably re-examine your entire approach.

Some will say the problem is that municipalities have simply been getting a raw deal, that the provincial and federal governments just need to step up to fill our revenue gap.

But we all recognize that to a certain extent, money is power. And if we orient our city revenue sources upward to rely more on senior levels of government, then we can’t be surprised when we are asked to relinquish power upwards as well.

We want the Province to pay for our sewer treatment upgrades? No problem, but the Premier wants control over the sewer dividend the City has been taking.

We want the Province to chip in more money for roads, rec centres and transit? Ok, but the Premier wants more control over our planning and land use decisions.

The more we insist on continuing down that path, the closer we get to simply becoming a ward of the Province, where all decisions are made for us at the Provincial level.

Obviously none of us want that.

Especially since we could be (mostly) financially self-sustaining, if we just paid closer attention to the things that matter, the things that actually make us better off in the long-term, rather than chasing the short term payoffs that just make us poorer.

The gut reaction is to get caught up in political grandstanding. The right has the answer! No, the left does! No, the right! Left! Right! Left!

But the reality is that the closer you get to the local level, the less left and right even matter. Your neighbour is your neighbour, and if they need a cup of sugar, or if you want to borrow a shovel, it really doesn’t matter what political colour they (or you) wear. And when it comes to which municipal actions will benefit or harm you, you will find that the person who lives right beside you will often have a lot of the same vested interests as you do, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum.

So we have to stop framing the municipal discussion in terms of left or right, much less as extreme right or extreme left as was recently insinuated by our outgoing Mayor, because what will actually move us forward as a city defies left-right characterizations. [I mean, I’ve actually been accused of being both, which I guess is only possible if the left-right spectrum is actually a circle?]

And on some level, I think we all know that. I mean, we don’t even have political parties at City Hall.

So where do we start?

Well, first and foremost, we need financial sustainability. No matter what our goals are, if we go bankrupt, it’s all for naught. So in everything we do, everything we build, we must be able to answer the question: how will we pay for this, forever?

Second, we need everyone on board. If we want to continue controlling our own municipal destiny, then we need a stable base of local revenue. And for that, we need every Winnipegger to prosper, so they can all pitch in to share the costs. We need to make it super easy for someone, anyone, to start with nothing, and end up with something. And if we’ve raised the barrier to entry for that, it’s our responsibility to lower it where we can, or help the most vulnerable up to reach it where we can’t.

Third, we need endless humility. We have to recognize that we humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future. We will almost always be wrong. So making massive bets on the future with expensive and irreversible infrastructure projects is a huge risk that no one should be OK with. Instead, we need to work in smaller, cheaper increments, so we can adjust and adapt as we go along. Where failure becomes a learning opportunity, instead of a boondoggle for our children and grandchildren to deal with.

If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll recognize that as the Strong Towns approach to public investment:

  1. Humbly observe where people are struggling.
  2. Identify the next smallest step we can take to correct it.
  3. Do that. Do it now.
  4. Start the whole process again tomorrow.

It’s an acknowledgement that our dreams can be big, but our actions need to be small. A $500 million BRT project is just as risky as a $500 million road expansion. Only unmitigated hubris would make us think it isn’t. A recent Free Press column about downtown hit the nail on the head:

“The boldest response will be a series of small solutions that work together to inspire fundamental change toward a common goal.”

— Brent Bellamy, Winnipeg Free Press, January 4th, 2021

And that’s the approach we need to take, not just with downtown, but with everything.

No more endless studies, no more reports. No risky, massive silver-bullet projects. Just action. Small, inexpensive steps that can be taken today. And if we fail, we fail fast, we fail cheap. We learn, and we build on that new knowledge.

Yes, we are in it deep, but it’s taken decades to get to where we are now. We can’t expect to get out of it overnight. But if we can improve things by 2 or 3 or 5% this year, and then again next year, and the next… eventually we’ll have made some real, lasting, sustainable progress.

I realize this may all sound like the ravings of a single lunatic from Elmwood, but that’s only because I know something you don’t.

I know the kinds of Winnipeggers that read these letters.

Seriously. If you saw the subscriber list, you’d fall off your chair.

There are engineers and planners, architects and accountants. There are prominent business leaders, senior bureaucrats, current and former elected officials. There are non-profit workers, realtors, developers and university professors. Not to mention journalists, teachers, students and retirees.

There are young, there are old. There are inner-city dwellers. There are suburbanites. There are those on the right, and those on the left. The number and the variety of Winnipeggers truly is astounding.

So it’s not just me, the lunatic from Elmwood. There are literally tens of thousands of you that keep coming back to read about this stuff.

My goal has always been simply to get a conversation started.

And if there’s one thing that I have loved about writing these past two years, it’s the people I have met, the emails I’ve exchanged, the coffees (and beers) I’ve had, and the Zoom meetings with the many of you who have reached out. The conversations have been amazing, I’ve learned a lot, and it’s what has inspired me to keep writing.

But I’ve also come to realize that it may look a little bit like I’m the only Winnipegger talking about this stuff. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

So this year, I’m going to try something new. I’ll be inviting some of these varied Winnipeggers to write here as well.

Don’t worry, I’ll still continue writing. [You can’t get rid of me that easily!]

But hopefully, by hearing all these other voices talk about this stuff, you’ll more easily see that I’m not alone in this line of thinking.

And possibly most importantly, that you’re not alone either.

Love,

Elmwood Guy