Winnipeg fire and police services ask for help filling gaps in 2020 budget

Both Winnipeg Police Service chief Danny Smyth and Winnipeg Fire Paramedic chief John Lane were at city hall looking for the same thing — more money to balance their books for 2020.

The services both have holes in their budgets and came to the city’s finance committee to explain the need to fill in the gap. The pandemic, pensions and overtime are mostly to blame for the overruns.

For the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) the pressure mostly comes from an arbitrator’s ruling last spring that tore a multi-million dollar chunk out of their budget. A plan to achieve nearly $15 million in savings over three years from a reduction in officer’s pensions fell apart after the ruling sided with the union and not the city.

The WPS was able to find $620,000 in savings due to other salaries and benefit savings over the last several months, but that leaves a $2.9 million shortfall to the end of this year.

The finance committee voted to use cash from the city’s fiscal stabilization fund to cover the shortfall, but Smyth faces more of the same budget difficulty next year — and the year after — as the financial hole remains from the arbitrator’s decision.

WPS chief Danny Smyth tells the finance committee there has been a larger than normal turnover of officers due to retirement — well over the 10-year average. (Darin Morash/CBC )

The WPS chief says by carefully managing the number of new officers and staff coming on board, it should allow the service to make up the difference.

“We’ve had a larger-than-normal turnover in terms of retirements — well over our 10-year average. So we have a little bit of a buffer there in terms of managing vacancy management,” Smyth told reporters.

Smyth also believes negotiations for an upcoming new contract with WPS officers should result in some of the pension savings the city hoped to get before the arbitrator ruled against it. 

Fire needs more than Police

A combination of pressure on staffing levels from the COVID-19 health emergency and an underestimation of payouts for overtime add up to a $4.4 million cost overrun for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS).

The WFPS routinely budgets less for overtime than it spends, then receives funding to cover the shortfall at the end of the year. 

WFPS chief John Lane says the WFPS has seen a 40 per cent increase in retirements over past years, putting pressure on its budget in 2020. (Darin Morash/CBC )

Chief John Lane told councillors a significant portion of the overtime expenditures come from higher-than-normal retirements, prompting the WFPS to schedule extra shifts for members still working.

“We’ve seen a particularly unusual number of retirements in the latter half of the year, which are quite difficult to predict and then react to because, of course, it takes time to assemble a class,” Lane said.

The pandemic has also played a role in driving up costs for the WFPS, Lane told reporters Tuesday.

“That has increased the number of absences due to people being absolutely forbidden from coming to work with any symptoms whatsoever of cold or flu or anything and [also] the self-isolation that was required certainly when the outbreak occurred,” Lane told reporters following his submission to the finance committee.

The committee voted, as with the WPS request, to use the city’s fiscal stabilization fund to cover the overruns for the WFPS. 

Though both senior officers were looking for funding to make up holes in their current budgets, city hall is in the midst of deliberations for next year’s budget for all departments, and some of issues — the cost of the pandemic, pensions and retirements — will likely repeat for 2021. 

Finance chair Scott Gillingham says a combination of financial help from the federal government though its Safe Restart program, some austerity measures and using a multi-year budget process should help the city weather the storm — but he still worries about next year.

“It sets us up to face the financial implications of the pandemic in 2021… but we’re not out of the woods. I am still concerned about how long this pandemic goes and the financial impact on on the city,” Gillingham said.

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