23 Year Old Identifies $4.3 M Transit Error
How does a 23-year-old student union President find a $4.3 M ‘miscalculation’ in the City of Winnipeg budget and save the U-Pass program?
This is a long blog full of information – for people who aren’t already in information overload (!?!). It’s an incredible perspective into how 23-year-old Jakob Sanderson identifies a $4.3 Million error in transit’s budget calculations. This has been an intense two weeks focused on just ONE program in the budget. I’ll keep it simple – and trust me; this is the simplified version of the process:
• March 6th – Preliminary City of Winnipeg Four Year budget is tabled containing two volumes of financial information. In the 52 page overview – one line stood out: “Discontinuation of the U-Pass program” Statements emerged from members of the Budget Working Group claiming the program cost the City $15 million over four years. Yet, no financials were provided to support this claim.
• March 7th – I contacted Tanjit Nagra & Jakob Sanderson from the University of Manitoba to inform them that I opposed cutting the U-Pass program and would work with them to do whatever it took to get the U-Pass back into the budget. (I’ve worked with both over the years on illegal rooming houses). Plans were put in place to hold a joint U-Pass press conference on the steps of City Hall.
• March 9th a.m. – I send Chief Financial Officer a formal request for financial numbers showing me how the U-Pass cost the City $15 M over four years.
• March 10th – I received financial numbers from transit staff (original – attached). Through a series of email questions, I still don’t have clarity as a financial table is not self-explanatory. I sent financial numbers to Sanderson and Nagra to see if they could decipher, and send a meeting request to transit staff.
• March 11th a.m. – I sent a formal notice to Chair of Finance requesting he ensures transit staff meet with me.
• March 11th p.m. – Transit staff meet with me and review financials. I still did not have clarity – something still wasn’t aligning and asked if transit would meet with Sanderson to review. They agreed to meet with Sanderson.
• March 12th – Infrastructure Renewal and Public Works Committee meets to hear a public presentation on the budget – my & the public’s only chance to formally present to the Committee in opposition to the U-Pass cut, still with no clarity on the financials. Upwards of 50+ members of the public also presented in opposition. Public Works Committee members unanimously vote to cut U-Pass.
• March 14-15th – Sanderson continues to analyze numbers and submits his revisions to transit staff and Councillor Allard for their review. Sanderson also works with Councillors Nason and Klein.
• March 16th – Sanderson and Councillor Allard meet with transit staff to review financials. No one has a better understanding of the U-Pass sales and projection numbers better than Sanderson and Nagra as they have been involved in the program from day one. Sanderson quickly identifies that transit staff were using outdated numbers in their analysis, which resulted in a $4.3 million error in calculations. As a result, Councillor Allard requests transit staff provide updated numbers.
• March 18th a.m. – Transit staff provides updated financial numbers to myself and Sanderson (revised – attached). This indicates indeed that they had errored, and there was a $4.3 million miscalculation that made the U-Pass program seem more costly than it really was. Also on the 18th, Executive Policy Committee hears from upwards of 100+ members of the public in opposition to the budget.
• March 19th – Councillor Allard publicly acknowledges transit staff made a miscalculation – not stating exactly how much, but in the millions. This now ‘savings’ vs ‘expense’ combined with Sanderson offering to pay even more for U-Pass results in keeping the U-Pass program in the budget.
• March 20th – City Council votes on a four-year budget.
- The timeline presented to properly scrutinize a four-year budget is impossible for the public and Councillors not part of the Mayors Budget Working Group.
- A recent Freedom of Information Request identified the Mayor and EPC +2 met 58 times behind closed doors for the first ten months in 2019. These meetings included in-depth briefings from the public service on the City’s finances, assisting Councillors on decisions regarding which programs to retain – or cut in the four-year budget. Almost half of the Council did not receive this detailed information to make informed decisions.
- The public, specifically special interest groups who know a City program in great detail, can bring incredible insight and VALUE to the City, as has been proven by Jakob Sanderson in finding millions in a transit miscalculation.
- The City is operating under a 20-year-old governance model, which enables leaders to restrict information to Council members. I strongly believe we can do better, and need to update the governance model to allow better sharing of information, decision making and scrutiny in the use of tax dollars. After much advocacy, Council approved funding to conduct a governance review in 2018 – but the review has stalled, for yet unknown reasons. Changing the governance model will ultimately result in a better balance of power and information sharing; not something everyone wants to see occur.
It’s been an incredible two weeks working with ALL the students on the U-Pass. There is still a lot of work going forward – but our future is VERY bright with such sharp, articulate young people so engaged in the betterment of our City!