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Money for millionaires: Come and Get it, says Winnipeg's city council

At Wednesday's city council meeting, Mayor Sam Katz must have been auditioning for Dancing With The Stars because you've never seen such tapdancing in your life.

Mr. "I Can Take It" looked on the edge of a nervous breakdown as he spewed out a string of unconvincing excuses to justify his giveaway plan to return $3.6 million of property taxes to the Gail Asper-driven Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
In fact, Katz said the museum WON'T PAY ANY TAXES to the City of Winnipeg for FIFTEEN YEARS.

Yes, he said that.

For the first 11 or 12 years (he wasn't sure) the City will take the payments-in-lieu-of-taxes they get from the CMHR (which, as a federal institution doesn't pay taxes directly) and give it to the Province. The money is to pay off an $11.1 million secret loan that was given to Winnipeg so we could pretend we were making a significant donation to the museum to dupe the federal government into kicking in money to match contributions by Manitoba and (allegedly) Winnipeg.

For the next 3 years, he said, the city will collect the payments-in-lieu-of-taxes and kick them back to the CMHR. Just because Katz wants to give Gail Asper more money and he can.

The only problem is that the CMHR will owe Winnipeg about 9 million a year in taxes. Says who? Says the CMHR in their last annual report. So what has happened to that 9 million per year we're supposed to be getting for the next 15 years? Maybe somebody should ask Sam Katz.

Not that he cares.

He said so.

"I don't care whether it brings in 79 million or 709 million or 7.9 million. That's irrelevent to me," he said. He only cares how the museum makes people feel. Fuzzy and warm.

Of course, Winnipeg taxpayers who are paying Gail Asper's share of taxes might care. But Katz doesn't care about them, either. He said so. He called them "ludicrous".

By then Katz was all revved up and blasting in all directions.

Remember that football stadium he claimed he didn't know about all through the last civic election? And then after the election he announced a deal with Gail's brother David Asper, to pay him $4 million and build the stadium for him at taxpayers' expense?

Remember how it was going to cost $190 million. Guaranteed. Honest Injun.

Well don't hold your breath. Sam Katz said "construction inflation happens all the time. It's just a fact of life."

Fact of life, is it? So, what is the real cost of the football stadium going to be, you ask? A really inside source told us $300 million. Sam Katz, we'll bet, doesn't care.

He was a bit touchy about that $11 million loan from the province, though. What does body language mean when a man goes all rigid and can hardly speak?

"In order to get the first phase of BRT ( bus rapid transit) done...the City put up all the money and the Province is paying us back on an annual basis, i.e. (eye eee, he said) a loan."

Uh, no it isn't. Not by any stretch of the English language. Eee Eye Eee Eye Owe. A loan is when you give somebody money and they pay it back in installments, with interest. Not when you buy something and they help you pay for it. Nice try, though, Sammy.

Katz was extremely defensive about the charge that he's always got money for millionaires' pet projects but never for struggling social agencies.

He wanted credit for throwing a few crumbs to Osborne House in his last State of the City address. Each year Katz and the Chamber of Commerce raise money from the dinner and split it with various needy organizations.

We don't know what he gave Osborne House in 2011, but the previous year he handed them a cheque for $10,500. That, for anyone that's counting, is a whopping one-three-hundred-and-sixtieth of what he's giving millionaire Gail Asper for her museum. Whattaguy.

The Mayor was also very sensitive to the idea that he's giving away millions to the CMHR when it could be used to pay for some of the infrastructure deficit he's always whining about. So he did what politicians always do, he deflected the criticism to another level of government. Two, in fact.

There's $189 million sitting in the Building Canada Fund which isn't being used, he huffed. "We're losing $14 million every single year on construction inflation," he said.
He forgot to say that money was intended to go towards Phase Two of the Bus Rapid Transit corridor, which Katz kiboshed. He wants to spend it on a hugely expensive Light Rapid Train system, which the other two levels of government don't. A stalemate costing us $14 million a year.

The Mayor wasn't alone in spewing insults. Councillor Justin Swandel accused a speaker of "having a behavioral disorder" for appearing before council to oppose spending more money on the museum. That's the quality of city councillor we have in Winnipeg.

Although, it actually got worse.

Councill Ross Eadie spoke and said, as best we could decipher, either "Gwahr, I'm clinically insane" or "Woo. The psychedelic drugs are kickin' in."

He announced that Winnipeg could fix bad streets, backlanes and sidewalks at the same time as build "what will be, I think, the greatest project in the world today."

In the world. He said that.

He said it just before he started a rolling ramble about the Selkirk Settlers, the Forks, a private war that violated human rights, Point Douglas, Fort Douglas, all the immigrants he knows, "money is very important", the Women's Resource Centre, "why we're struggling in our inner cities", how we'll solve the problems though "it will take time", and reprising with how he knows so many different immigrants.

Then he clapped. Once.

Councillor Harvey Smith apologetically asked whether the proponents of the museum were going to come back for more money.

"If you got more cash, I'll be back," said Bill Morrissey, of Yes Winnipeg, who had earlier told the councillors that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights would better the quality of life of Winnipeg residents because it would be "a tremendous pastime."

Councillor Russ Wyatt said that if you added the money Katz wants to kickback to the museum to Winnipeg's streets and sidewalk renewal spending, we could catch up on the backlog. Then he voted in favour of spending the money on the museum instead of sidewalk repair.

We saved Councillor Jenny Gerbasi for last.

She said she just returned from a conference in Chicago where she learned you have to think big. And to welcome big ideas that come "from our citizens, whether they're wealthy citizens or not, they're citizens."

Big, she said, like the $400 million that Chicago spent "on a public park." It sounds crazy, she admitted, but it was providing Chicago with " $1 billion per year in economic investment. Per year."

Except that it doesn't.

The project was called Millenium Park and involved turning 25 acres of old railyards and an empty parking lot into "a park with cutting edge sculpture, landscape architecture and outdoor performance space", to quote one report.

The project went wildly over budget, approaching $500 million, of which $200 million came from the public sector. They immediately ran into problems covering operating costs, resulting in, guess what, high parking rates and higher taxes.

The value is nowhere near the imaginary numbers quoted by Gerbasi.

As with the CMHR, no two reports agree on the economic impact.

Compare these two plucked from stories on different days.

"A study, which we now think understated the impact, was completed in 2005. It stated that the value of the surrounding residential property values would increase by $1.4 billion over a ten year period ending in 2015 and the increase in tourism dollars over that same period would be $2.6 billion."
"The 24.5-acre park will spark $1.4 billion in new residential construction in the East Loop over the next 10 years, according to a study commissioned by the city's Department of Planning and Development. Tourist spending is projected to surpass $1.9 billion during the same period."

Is that an increase in residential property values or is it new residential construction? Before or after the housing crash of 2008?

Is the tourism boost $2.6 billion or $1.9 billion?

And note, that's over TEN YEARS. Not "per year" as Gerbasi gushed.

Oh, and Chicago gets 25 million or 26 million tourists a year. Did before the park and did after. Of which one-and-a-half million visit the Millenium Park.

That's the sort of wild, dare we say "ludicrous" boosterism you get from city councillors who are in the pocket of the "visionaries".

City council voted unanimously to give $3.6 million to the CMHR.

Remember that the next time your city councillor says there's no money to fix your street.

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