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More police, fire crews just about politics

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Joe Pennachetti certainly knows how to generate a headline.

In a bid to address what is expected to be a $740-million budget shortfall next year, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has dictated spending cuts, not tax increases, will be his city's salvation. This has prompted Pennachetti, Toronto's city manager, to ask civic departments to cut 10 per cent of their budgets.

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The cutbacks will have predictably dire consequences: laying off thousands of city workers, closing libraries, withdrawing subsidies for child care and closing long-term care homes.

In an interview with The Toronto Star earlier this month, Pennachetti added some fuel to this fire when he suggested times are so tight, and the shortfall so profound, city council might have to consider cutting the budgets of police and fire services. "If council is not willing to look at 10 per cent (reduction) for (police and fire services), it will be worse for the other services that Torontonians said for the past two weeks are dear to their hearts," he said.

Such a suggestion could only have come out of the mouth of a bureaucrat. It's not that cutting funding to police and fire services hasn't been considered at political levels. It's just that most elected officials won't say something like that out loud, especially if they want to remain elected officials.

Police and fire services are far and away the sacred cows of local government. The mere suggestion of a budget review is considered political suicide. Police and fire unions are masterful at convincing taxpayers to value their services beyond all others and politicians that any funding cut is an all-out declaration of war.

Consider in the last municipal election, Mayor Sam Katz promised to hire 57 new police officers. In return, he got the endorsement of the Winnipeg Police Association. It mattered little that Katz didn't have the money to hire the cops or know exactly what those cops were going to do. Katz only needed to show voters, and the police union, where he stood on the issue.

Perhaps Pennachetti wasn't really advocating for cuts to police and fire budgets. Perhaps he thought simply by raising the issue of cutbacks, Mayor Ford would be convinced to ease up on the austerity program. And yet, Pennachetti's comments bring up some interesting points, not least of which is this: In these times of slow economic growth and burgeoning government deficits, shouldn't police and fire services be subject to the same scrutiny as other areas of government services?

No sane person would argue all civic services are created equal. And yet, when you actually start lining up the services, it's a lot more difficult to identify those that should never be cut and those that can be cut back. More cops or more social workers? More fire stations or improvements to recreational facilities? We may all have our preferences, but across the length and breadth of an entire community, these are difficult decisions.

The hard numbers suggest there may be room to cut back on both police and fire. Notwithstanding the hysteria suggesting otherwise, crime is going down. In many cities, firefighters face roughly the same number of blazes they faced a quarter-century ago.

Police and fire unions are not without their retorts. Winnipeg Police Association president Mike Sutherland said administrative demands on police are far more burdensome than in the past. There are greater demands on police investigations and many more hurdles that must be jumped to make Criminal Code charges stick. As for the fire service, United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest notes while the number of actual fires has not risen, firefighters are now asked to respond to many more medical emergencies.

These are good counterpoints, but they do not tell the entire story. Although there are cost savings to be had in a hard review of both services, fire and police unions have convinced elected officials there is no future in it. "If any politician really believes it's a good idea to cut fire services, that politician will be out of a job come election time," Forrest said.

In the upcoming provincial election, there should be no doubt the parties vying for votes will offer to hire more cops, perhaps even more firefighters. Is this money well spent? Is it the best way to address the underlying causes of crime or reduce fires? Who knows? Nobody involved in the election will even consider asking the questions.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2011 B3

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