A windfall from a cut to the provincial sales tax may allow Sunday hours to continue at six Winnipeg libraries and soften proposed cuts to the city’s leisure guide programming.
Mayor Brian Bowman’s executive policy committee passed several amendments to the city’s proposed budget Thursday, including renewing the U-Pass Winnipeg Transit pass for post-secondary students and providing $500,000 in funding over four years for the city’s public art strategy. Public art funding was slated to drop to to $200,000 in 2020 and be cut entirely that year.
Councillors on EPC also voted to direct the city’s public service to find a third party willing to own or operate the Terry Sawchuk Arena. The budget had originally called for the facility to be shut down.
In addition, the EPC approved an amendment that will provide $1.3 million over three years to partially restore the proposed 50 per cent reduction in Leisure Guide programming starting in 2021. That programming will now be reduced by 14 per cent.
The cash for reversing some of the cuts proposed in the preliminary budget come in part from savings from a one percentage point drop in the provincial sales tax, slated to come into effect on July 1, giving the city an additional $3.3 million.
Mayor Brian Bowman tipped his hat to the provincial government for trimming the sales tax.
“There should be some credit [given] to our provincial partners,” Bowman told reporters following the EPC meeting Thursday.
As a result, six libraries could avoid being shuttered on Sundays, but a proposal to trim daily operating hours still remains in the budget.
Bowman defended his budget choices, saying a growing structural deficit on the city’s books had to end.
An amendment on the U-Pass program would require students pay an additional $40 per semester for the transit pass. The budget originally proposed cutting the deeply discounted pass for post-secondary students altogether.
Post-secondary students, led by University of Manitoba Students’ Union president Jakob Sanderson, peppered EPC members during a 12-hour budget session on Wednesday in an effort to keep the U-Pass program alive.
They found a $4-million error in the city’s math on expected savings from killing the program and offered to pay more for the passes.
“We heard it loud and clear — they [students] were willing to pay more,” said finance chair Scott Gillingham (St. James).
However, sparing the program from the budget axe may not actually save it — the EPC amendment means students would have to contribute even more than originally than they’d offered to save the program.
UMSU’s Sanderson says the student union’s executive will meet on March 26 and either accept or reject the increase, or call for a referendum and allow students to decide.
He says the U-turn EPC made on the student pass is “bittersweet” and that it’s students who can take credit — not the mayor or his EPC members.
“It was the students that had to go and find the error and get the correction, and make the case, and then come out and get the city to continue offering this program. It’s not something that happens very often,” he said.
The change on the student bus pass, however, has convinced one councillor to support the budget.
Waverley West Coun. Janice Lukes says the budget process itself “leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” and needs wholesale change, but she will vote for it for one reason only — because the U-Pass program was saved.
“I’m thrilled it’s not dead,” Lukes said, giving full credit to Sanderson for saving it.
‘We listened’: Bowman
The university students were just one of the delegations executive policy committee heard from over 12 hours on Wednesday, with many calling for changes to the budget.
“They were effective,” said Bowman. “So for those that think the budget is cast in stone, we listened.”
Several cuts to community groups and service organizations — as well as a reduction in funding for the Winnipeg Arts Council — remain in the proposed budget.
“I don’t expect everyone will be on board with the decisions we made,” Bowman acknowledged.
Coun Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood), a frequent critic of Bowman, is one of those who isn’t on board, and will vote against the budget, saying the pre-budget public consultation process caused needless stress and anxiety for Winnipeggers.
“The truth of the matter is there are still cuts. Cuts still exist in the budget. The proposed amendments are Band-Aids to an already bleeding budget process, which exploited the public,” Klein said.
In order to generate more savings to change the budget, EPC is proposing to move the office of sustainability from the city’s chief administrative office to the water and waste department.
The change would free up $1.5 million, as funding from sewer and water rates would pay the cost of the sustainability office and no longer be supported by general revenues.
Gillingham justified the move, saying the sustainability office is mostly focused on projects within the water and waste department.
A schedule for remaining council meetings on the budget has changed.
Council was set to vote on the budget Friday and hold its regular monthly meeting on Saturday. Now both will be held on Friday in effort not to open city hall on the weekend.
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