Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Will police chopper fly?

Fine print in city plan calls for province to fund annual operating costs

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Mayor Sam Katz and Premier Greg Selinger are playing a game of chicken over a Winnipeg police whirlybird.

Both politicians want to see the aircraft fly, as long as they don't have to pay the entire operating tab.

On Wednesday, a plan to send a police helicopter into Winnipeg's skies cleared its final hurdle at city hall, as council voted 14-2 in favour of spending $3.5 million for the vehicle, on-board equipment and a hangar at Richardson International Airport.

According to the fine print in the city plan, the chopper won't take flight unless the Selinger government agrees to pick up the $1.3-million annual cost of operating the helicopter, without diverting cash from other pots of money provided to the city. It also requires the provincial government to cover any inflationary increases in operating costs that emerge in future.

But late last year, when Selinger used his government's first throne speech to announced the province will support the police helicopter, there was no mention of brand-new money, never mind in perpetuity.

Katz and his council allies are now applying public pressure on Selinger to meet the city's terms -- or risk being painted as the villain if no helicopter deal is reached.

"If they don't fund this, it probably doesn't happen. There's no point me losing sleep and being concerned about it," the mayor said following Wednesday's council meeting.

The monthly gathering of council saw St. Vital Coun. Gord Steeves warn the province "there will be a lot of anger and disappointment in this city" if a police helicopter does not fly.

But St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal, a friend and ally of the premier, reminded council the province made no commitment to providing new operating money.

"In the throne speech, we committed to helping them obtain a police helicopter and we are working with the city to do just that," a spokesperson for the Selinger government reiterated on Wednesday.

The motivation to buy a police helicopter has been mired in political murk at both city hall and the Manitoba legislature ever since November, when Katz and city council finance chairman Scott Fielding initially claimed there was no money in Winnipeg's capital budget for the aircraft.

But the $3.5-million startup cash materialized only days after the Selinger government endorsed the helicopter. According to sources on executive policy committee, the mayor agreed to allow the premier to announce the vehicle first in order to have something attractive in an otherwise-dour throne speech.

Since then, Katz has said repeatedly he would like the province to agree to fund the helicopter as soon as possible, since it takes five or six months to get the aircraft in the air and he would like it to fly by summer.

"I don't play chicken," said the mayor, denying he's trying to apply pressure. "The premier and I, in my opinion, have a very good working relationship."

The mayor said he does not believe that relationship was strained by Tuesday's 2010 State of the City speech, in which Katz lambasted the province over revenue sharing, waste-water upgrades and school board spending. He also accused Selinger's NDP of trying to assume control of city hall in the October civic election.

The mayor said he does not believe the speech "will have any effect whatsoever" on the helicopter negotiations, which the provincial spokesperson described as ongoing between high-level officials.

"If you think that (speech) was fiery, then you don't know me very well. That was not fiery whatsoever. That was not combative whatsoever. That was me raising issues that need to be addressed," Katz said

His comments followed an 80-minute council debate in which four of six opposition councillors voted for the helicopter. Only Couns. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge) and Russ Wyatt (Transcona) voted against the purchase.

Gerbasi said the Winnipeg Police Service failed to compare the effectiveness of a police helicopter with other crime-fighting initiatives, while Wyatt said he would prefer to see the police place more cruisers on the streets instead.

-- With files from Bruce Owen

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Ternette's last stand

SIGNIFICANT events at city council on Wednesday:

Police helicopter: Council voted 14-2 to approve the $3.5-million purchase of a police chopper, contingent upon $1.3 million in new operating funds each year from the province. Couns. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge) and Russ Wyatt (Transcona) voted in opposition.

Ternette's final address: Longtime Winnipeg activist Nick Ternette ended a 40-year tradition of addressing city council with a farewell speech in which he opposed the helicopter purchase. Ternette told councillors he respects what they do, but warned them they are more isolated than ever from ordinary Winnipeggers. Council speaker Harry Lazarenko commended Ternette for his many years of unpaid public service.

Auditor and clerk oversight: Council voted 14-2 to reverse one aspect of the city's 2008 reorganization and place the city auditor and city clerk under the auspices of politicians, instead of council as well as the chief administrative officer. Couns. Wyatt and Lillian Thomas (Elmwood) opposed because the clerk will now report to executive policy committee, not council as a whole.

-- Kives

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2010 B1

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