Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Who runs the city today?

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If anything puts paid to the naive idea that politicians are bound to reflect the common good, it's their stubborn refusal to heed demands for a war on Manitoba's battered highways, streets and sidewalks. The major parties have made promises worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including more cops the city did not request and can't afford, yet their commitment to infrastructure has been anemic at best.

The political response would be adequate if the public was content to stumble on cracked sidewalks and drive across an obstacle course of ruts and potholes, but every survey has shown good infrastructure is a major priority. In fact, the problem is so severe that business groups, which normally abhor tax increases of any type, have recommended raising the sales tax.

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce says the province should give the city the authority to implement a civic sales tax for infrastructure -- thus protecting the province from political fallout, if there was any, while holding the mayor and council accountable.

The Business Council of Manitoba, which represents Manitoba's leading captains of industry and commerce, has urged the province to raise the provincial sales tax by one point for 10 years, subject to public approval through a referendum, which is required by law.

The Infrastructure Funding Council advocated a longer-term plan that also included an increase in the PST.

Mayor Sam Katz wants even less -- just one point of the sales tax, in addition to existing commitments -- but it's also too much for the major parties, particularly the Conservatives and the New Democrats, who prefer to set the civic agenda, rather than allowing the mayor and council to run their own affairs.

In an interview with the editorial board of the Free Press Tuesday, Premier Greg Selinger said citizens don't want an increase in taxes in exchange for safer roads, but he had no surveys to back up that claim.

He noted that infrastructure is a problem across Canada, which is true, but hardly a justification for not tackling the problem in Manitoba.

Mayor Sam Katz told reporters he doesn't buy the argument that the province can't afford to spend more on infrastructure. If the Conservatives and the NDP can both make promises worth billions of dollars, he said, then they can find the money for infrastructure. It's just a matter of priorities.

"What's the point of investing more money into health care if ambulances can't navigate our roads?" Mr. Katz asked. "Why pledge more money for community centres if we can't even walk on our sidewalks?" Why, indeed.

The mayor added he didn't even want the province's money for community clubs and police if it was going to burden the city with new costs.

But Selinger said his promises to the city come with permanent funding, as do many of the pledges from Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen. It means whoever is elected, the province will assume greater and greater responsibility for programs and services, such as policing, that were mostly managed by the city in the past.

In other words, if you don't like public transit, or police and paramedic response times, if you don't like driving on dangerous roads, well, don't call your councillor, call the people on Broadway. They've found a way to garner votes in Winnipeg, while blurring the lines of accountability.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2011 A14

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