Snowed under to the tune of $9.5M, Winnipeg enacts hiring freeze

Snowed under to the tune of $9.5M, Winnipeg enacts hiring freeze

The City of Winnipeg has enacted a hiring freeze on most departments and may postpone or cancel some major projects in order to deal with a $9.5-million hole in the budget at the start of the year.

The city's $1.08-billion operating budget for 2017 includes a transfer of $9.5 million in surplus funds from last year's budget to this year. But heavy snow in December erased the expected surplus and left the city in a $5.1-million hole at the end of 2016.​

A new report to council's finance committee outlines the measures city finance officials are taking to claw out of the hole. Every department has been given a savings target, while a hiring freeze has been enacted for all positions except police, firefighters, paramedics and bus drivers.

"If a department deems a position critical, there is a corporate review committee in place to determine if that position should be filled. The review criteria to determine whether to staff a position includes business continuity, service levels, safety and financial impact," Winnipeg financial planning manager Betty Holsten Boyer writes in the report to council's finance committee.

The city is also restricting spending on external consultants, limiting discretionary spending and requiring any employee who wishes to travel to a conference to receive prior approval from chief administrative officer Doug McNeil, the report says.

A review of capital projects is also underway "to determine what projects could be postponed or reprioritized," Holsten Boyer writes, adding a separate report will come to council to amend the capital budget.

While it's common for the city to sit in a deficit position early in the year and make up the shortfall later, council finance chair Scott Gillingham (St. James-Brooklands-Weston) said the city should not take that chance.

"That wouldn't be prudent. It's important that we act immediately. We know we have a $9.5-million shortfall that we have to find. And I think taxpayers expect us to do our jobs to control our expenses when we're faced with a situation like this," Gillingham said at city hall.

The head of Winnipeg's largest union criticized the freeze. Gord Delbridge, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, said some city workers already do the work of several employees due to years of not filling vacancies.

Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie also expressed concerns there will be service cuts as a result of unfilled positions that are not deemed to be essential.

"If we're not hiring those part-time employees that we bring on to cut the grass, to sweep the streets, to do all these things, we're going to have serious problems," Eadie said.