Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Politics could use a little compassion

Leaders seek cash but ignore impact on other side

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In these days of austerity, many commodities are in short supply. Take empathy, for example.

In the world of politics, this would be the ability of one politician or level of government to fully appreciate and respect the stresses on other politicians at other levels of government. It's not an exaggeration to say there is a desperate shortage of political empathy right now at all levels of government.

The federal government, for example, forges ahead with austerity measures designed to ease its own deficit pressures, without acknowledging the pain this causes to provincial and local government, or the negative impact it has on core government services.

Although the empathy deficit afflicts all governments, it is perhaps most pronounced at city hall.

Consider a recent exchange between the Downtown Business Improvement Zone (BIZ) and the city over foot patrols. Starting last year, the city provided police cadets to control street crime and help addicted and downtrodden citizens find shelter.

By all accounts, the program has been a success. In addition to providing valuable experience for cops-in-training, the decision to turn over the street patrols has coincided with a 14.5 per cent decrease in violent crimes in key downtown districts. The Downtown BIZ agreed to contribute $100,000 to the patrols from the levy it collects from downtown businesses. The levy is used to fund operations of the BIZ office, and provide a variety of programs including streetscaping and maintenance and marketing of downtown.

The problems began when the BIZ failed to pay its contribution for the second quarter of 2013 and then decided not to sign a cost-sharing agreement that would go on for an indefinite period, something BIZ members do not support. Coun. Scott Fielding, chairman of the protection and community services committee, threatened to withhold $100,000 from the BIZ levy if a long-term agreement was not signed.

In empathetic terms, Fielding seems oblivious to the fact the cadet patrols are a city service paid for by business owners who pay other forms of tax to the city to support police services. That means downtown business owners get a say in the types of deals they enter into and the length of those deals.

At city hall, lamentably, the lack of empathy flows in more than one direction. The same week, Mayor Sam Katz took a presumptive posture of his own with his annual pre-provincial budget news release, which renewed demands for increased infrastructure funding from the province. "If Winnipeg is to take its place as a modern, competitive city, we need infrastructure that supports both family life and business."

The mayor is right on the basics. Infrastructure is important and it's a problem that requires contributions from all levels of government. However, the mayor's news release doesn't acknowledge the fiscal crisis facing the federal and provincial governments. Both levels of government are struggling to free themselves from deficit financing. Debt at the federal and provincial levels is growing. This makes increased funding for infrastructure a touchy subject.

Ottawa, for example, renewed its infrastructure-funding program but opted not to bump it up significantly as a form of economic stimulus. The province, as well, is expected to maintain a basic level of infrastructure funding with no big increases.

Should there be more money? There are strong arguments for this, including the fact infrastructure spending helps grow the economy.But Katz's solution -- a greater share of existing provincial tax revenues -- is not a solution when considered against the current fiscal crisis. Some opinion-leading voices have suggested the province look at increasing the provincial sales tax to fund infrastructure. Katz refuses to look at that option, opting instead for a larger share of an already-stressed provincial treasury.

The city has a good arguments to make in both scenarios. In the first, that downtown businesses should make an extra contribution to patrols. In the latter, that senior levels of government must step up to address the infrastructure deficit.

However, demands that do not reflect opposing arguments are not only unrealistic, they are typically unsuccessful. If they city wants a deal with the BIZ, it should find a term that business owners can live with and move forward without threats. As for infrastructure funding, the city should take a strong look at ways of generating additional revenue to eat into the infrastructure deficit, rather than issue demands for money already spoken for.

The city has many genuinely righteous causes and is certainly not alone when it comes to presumptuousness. However, it might get more of what it wants if its demands contained even a modest blush of empathy.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 A5

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