Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Prevention worth pounds of cure

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No matter who is in power at city hall, elected officials routinely cite crime and safety among their top priorities.

But robust emergency services come with an ever-increasing price tag, governments have learned after fulfilling election promises to hire more police, paramedics and firefighters.

In the City of Winnipeg, the combined cost of the police service and fire-paramedic service will be $406 million this year, a figure that represents 44 per cent of all city spending on services.

That figure has jumped almost $100 million in five years, from $308 million in 2009, when emergency services accounted for 39 per cent of the city's total operational spending.

The city has no control over one factor that's driving up the cost: arbitrated contract settlements with unions representing police and firefighters, who do not have the right to strike.

But the unions are not to blame for political decisions to hire more members of their ranks. In fact, for years, police, paramedics and firefighters have been pleading with politicians to improve the social services that contribute to a high number of emergency calls, noting emergency workers should not be forced to play the role of social workers.

The Winnipeg Police Advisory Board, a short-lived body commissioned by Mayor Sam Katz, suggested crime could not be reduced in this city through law enforcement alone. Its conclusion: No amount of police officers on the street can prevent the problems that take place inside homes, let alone alleviate the poverty, substance abuse and family breakdown that contribute to violence.

Likewise, firefighters and paramedics complain of repeated calls to aid the same patients in distress. While there are housing models that could greatly reduce the cost of emergency response, the responsibility for social services, health care and housing lie with other levels of government.

Until such services improve, the city spends more and more to provide all citizens with emergency services.

-- Bartley Kives

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2013 A4

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