Municipal election 2010: In Winnipeg, the incumbent mayor tries to take it wholesale

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Winnipeg mayoral races are typically a cake walk for the incumbent. The only sitting mayor who has been pushed out since Bill Norrie was the deeply and justifiably unpopular Susan Thompson, elected in 1992, who was forced to the side because of overwhelming popular feeling against her.

According to the most recent local poll this election, between incumbent Sam Katz and former NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis, is pretty much a dead heat. If Katz does fail to get re-elected he will have only have his lack of vision to blame.

Katz's principal accomplishment while in office has been to rein in taxes. He has done this by continuing a 13-year freeze on property taxes and whittling away at the business tax rate. As a result of this freeze, Winnipeg has gone from having one of the higher property taxes on the prairies to one of the lowest, as shown in a property tax report issued by the City of Edmonton for 2009. 

However, it also means that property tax revenue (which accounts for over 50 per cent of the city's budget) has fallen in real terms over the last decade. This has created a bit of a cash shortfall, which City Hall has sidestepped in two ways.

First, it has increased other forms of revenue. For example, City Hall has increased the fees it charges for City services. This can often be reasonably justified on public policy grounds, as was the case when fees for dumping in the city landfill increased. But the City's need to raise money has extended to increases in a wide variety of areas that are more difficult to justify, like increasing the emergency medical fees for ambulances (estimated revenue increase $2.6 million).

Second, Katz has used some creative accounting to live up to his claim of a balanced budget. In fact, revenues were less than spending in 2009. The illusion of a balanced budget was maintained by selling off City assets and drawing down a "rainy day" fund to the tune of $11.5 million. Most outrageously, in a move that would shock even the Enron accountants, City Hall is counting around $10 million from an unsettled lawsuit with hydro as guaranteed revenue for 2010.

The result of Katz's tax freeze is that he has placed the city in a fiscal straightjacket of his own making, compromising its ability to deliver municipal services.

The division of what little money does come in demonstrates the City's old school approach to municipal priorities. Katz wants to be seen as "tough on crime" and has spent freely on law enforcement. Policing currently takes up 23 per cent of the City's budget and received a 6 per cent increase in 2009. Winnipeg has more cops per person (101 per 100,000 in 2009) than most Canadian cities and the police will get a shiny new $3.5 million helicopter. Katz's approach to crime is very much "deal with the consequences" rather than "eliminate the causes." The City currently spends about five times as much on crime response as it does crime prevention.

Although the mayor talks about urban planning issues like redeveloping downtown and public transportation his policies have done little to put this into practice. He has approved several new suburbs, including the sprawling Waverly West subdivision in the south of the city and his transportation plan appears to revolve around building larger roads and underpasses to service the growing sprawl. The City has committed $185 million to expand major roadways. This has come at the expense of greener transportation alternatives. City Hall has been "committed" to funding (and then ignoring) a series of studies on rapid public transportation -- without actually constructing anything. In 2005, a task force recommended bus rapid transit in the form of 11 city-wide "quality corridors," not one of which has yet seen the light of day. During his term, the mayor has managed to abandon one rapid transit project that had been approved, with federal and provincial funding in place. He then caused lengthy delays in the first corridor, in the south of the city, by engaging City Hall in a debating quagmire about the relative merits of rail versus bus transit. In his six years as mayor, Katz has managed to start (although not finish) construction on a grand total of 3.6 kilometers of a rapid transit route. Rapid transit is only symptomatic of an administration that has no real desire to implement any policy that might alleviate urban sprawl, create a more cohesive, efficient, densely populated city, reduce expensive, polluting automobile use or even foster a more attractive city.

Social and economic issues like housing have also not been high on City Hall's priority list. Winnipeg has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country (1 per cent). The predictable increases in rental prices have cut into low-income residents' limited incomes and created real hardship for those fortunate enough to actually locate an apartment. Yet the city has done little to moderate lower-income residents' housing costs and stress. In 2009, Winnipeg increased its housing budget by a very modest 3.5 per cent from the previous year, but this still only amounted to 0.27 per cent of its operating budget. In comparison, Edmonton dedicated 0.89 per cent of its budget to housing in 2009, and will increase housing spending by 29.2 percent in 2010.

Few cities can claim an administration free of backroom deals, but under Katz, who also owns the local minor league baseball team, City Hall seems to revel in conflicts of interest, opaque deals and lack of accountability. In one example the City forgave the tax debt on the parking lot used by Katz's baseball team (although the mayor did recuse himself from the vote). He has also signed on to the P-3 bandwagon and its accompanying confidentiality. The latest example is a deal with Veolia, a multi-national corporation well known for its dubious dealings in developing countries, to design, build, and maybe run a new sewage treatment plant. Efforts to achieve public accountability by obtaining specifics of the public-private deal have been thwarted by secrecy due to the "confidentiality of private information" excuses so common to P-3s.

Thus far, W-L has committed to addressing some of the shortfalls of the Katz administration in her campaign. Her major announcements have included pledges to finish the southern rapid transit corridor and to drop the unsustainable property tax freeze. The latest Probe research poll shows that half of likely voters are either heartened by what they hear from W-L, or weary of living in a city that always seems to have "potential." Even Winnipeggers who have generally stuck with the "devil they know" may feel they have spent long enough in the visionless purgatory of the Katz administration.

Ian Hudson is an associate professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba.

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