Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/3/2012 (3715 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If there are still any Winnipeggers who think potholes and crumbling infrastructure, or even rapid transit, are the most critical issues on the city's road to the future, they haven't been looking far enough down it.
The most serious issue is rising costs and the way the city finds ever more inventive ways to pick our ever more empty pockets. Especially when it comes to the price the city pays for those people who are supposed to arrest pickpockets.
Last year, policing in Winnipeg accounted for almost a quarter of the city's overall operating budget, most of it in police salaries, overtime and benefits. But, if it makes you feel any better, this isn't just a Winnipeg thing.
On Monday, the issue hit the national agenda after Ontario's police services board called on the provincial government to do something about it.
Two days later, the Globe and Mail began a rare three-part editorial series by raising a big red flag over the thin blue line. The first editorial -- Heading toward a police emergency -- broadly outlined the problem for Canadian cities.
Nationally, for the past 14 years -- even adjusting for inflation -- police spending has risen annually like a swollen spring river. This while crime has been dropping in Canada over the last decade and the number of cops has been going up. So, of course, has their pay and benefits, but at a rate higher than other civic workers -- and even higher than inflation.
Last year in Winnipeg, for example, city council approved a four-year contract with the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500, which represents about half of city workers. The contract froze their wages in 2011, then allowed a meagre one per cent increase this year, and 2.5 per cent in each of the next two years. By contrast, the city offered police a 3.47 per cent increase for 2011 and three per cent this year.
This in a city where a first-class constable with 16 years' experience earns more than $86,000 a year and a top-end staff sergeant nearly $105,000.
That's before overtime, of course, and before whatever police get from their new contract. Nonetheless, the city's offer of 6.47 per cent over two years was an offer police could refuse, and they did.
Instead, they chose binding arbitration. That's because they're deemed an essential service and, as such, don't have the right to strike.
Which brings us to that fork in the city's road to the future where police spending intersects with our ability to pay. Binding arbitration is an attractive alternative for a police union. That's because the arbitrator is presented with recent police contract agreements in other Canadian cities as a baseline for a settlement. This feasting of one fat police service contract off another results in never-ending high-cost settlements for cities across the country. Inexorably driving the cost of municipal policing with it.
What makes this cycle frustrating -- why, no doubt, Ontario's police services board called on the provincial government to do something -- is binding arbitration leaves politicians at the municipal level looking like common citizens trying to direct traffic. Except in this case, they're left standing there with little ability to control the direction of police salaries.
What politicians could do, of course, is insist police control their spending or face layoffs if they don't.
Not a popular political move, you say.
Or at least not yet.
But, as the Globe pointed out, last year half of all major American police departments had their budgets cut, this in a country obsessed with public safety, but even more so these days with financial realities.
So why don't our civic politicians use the layoff billy club?
The Globe editorial concluded it was because politicians fear being branded anti-police or soft on crime.
But it goes deeper than that.
As one former high-level Toronto bureaucrat suggested, politicians fear police in general and police unions in particular. They're an intimidating presence. But they're also an attractive political partner, particularly during elections.
Just ask Mayor Sam Katz.
As the Globe also wrote, unless something similar is done to control costs in Canadian cities, the price of law and order will become unsustainable. The reality is the price of law and order in Canadian cities, including Winnipeg, is already unsustainable because the pattern of spending is out of control.
Just take a look at Winnipeg's road to the future, because that's not a big pothole you see up ahead.
It's a budget sinkhole.