Winnipeg city council declares local state of emergency due to COVID-19, passes tax-relief plan

By | April 3, 2020

Winnipeg city council declared a local state of emergency on Friday, as council also voted 15 to 1 in favour of a tax-relief package for businesses and property owners.

The city suspended penalties for unpaid property and business taxes for up to three months following their due date. 

Property taxes due at the end of June will have fees waived until the beginning of October.

Business taxes due at the end of May will have fees waived until  the beginning of September.

The city also waived tax instalment payment plan (TIPP) program fees on both taxes until Oct. 1, 2020. 

Friday’s city council meeting was unlike any other.

There were no delegations and no members of the public in the gallery. Councillors observed phsyical distancing and were spread apart as they voted on steps to deal with the pandemic crisis, including a declaration of a local state of emergency.

That gives Winnipeg sweeping powers to take over property if there is a need and limit access to certain areas if required.

“There are no immediate plans to exercise the powers under the declaration of the state of local emergency,” Mayor Brian Bowman said.

He called the meeting “historic” as council got behind an “unprecedented relief plan.”

“It’s not been done — as far as we know — in our city’s history,” Bowman said.

Strong support comes with concerns 

Councillors supported the tax relief package, but some believe the city isn’t moving fast enough to protect its own finances.

Kevin Klein, the councillor for Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood, voted for the tax relief program, but joined Transcona councillor Shawn Nason voting against two clauses of the program that could prompt changing limits on drawing down its fiscal stabilization fund.

Klein, a frequent critic of Bowman and his executive policy committee, told councillors the city should be leaping ahead on its plans to manage the pandemic by looking at the suspension of all non-essential services and capital expenditures.

“Our revenues are dropping now; we are not prepared.” Klein said.

North Kildonan councillor Jeff Browaty also voted in favour of the tax relief, calling it, like several on council, a “good first step.” 

Councillor Jeff Browaty questions whether the city should continue to run buses downtown to ’empty officer towers.’ (Trevor Brine/CBC)

However, Browaty cautioned there needs to be a long hard look at what services the city currently provides. 

“Do we need rush-hour buses coming downtown to office towers that are empty?” Browaty asked.

John Orlikow chided his fellow councillors for criticizing the city’s effort, calling it the “simplest, broadest measure we can do.”

“People are freaking out. Rightfully so. [They are saying] how am I going to pay my bills?” Orlikow, the councillor for River Heights, Fort Garry said.

Orlikow was the first councillor to voice at the real possibility the city may have to tear up its recently passed budget.

“Probably going to have to re-do our whole budget,” Orlikow told his council colleagues, “But we need to be together on this … this is a first step here people.”

At a press conference after the meeting, the mayor acknowledged many of the decisions made in a budget passed just a few weeks ago would likely have to be “revisited.” 

From now on, city council and committee meetings will be held electronically. 

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The lone vote against the tax relief package was from a councillor who said it was the result of an error.

Coun. Jason Schreyer voted against the tax deferrals — but later said an error had been made and he intended to vote for the tax package. 

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