May 31, 2020

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MLL's costs are the public's business

Editorial

The focus on heightened security is justified, necessary and, many would argue, overdue.

The accompanying insistence on secrecy regarding certain details of the security measures is, however, difficult to comprehend.

Officials at Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries, the Crown corporation responsible for the province’s retail sales of alcoholic beverages, stated Tuesday that MLL will not disclose the costs associated with recently completed security upgrades at the Tyndall Park Liquor Mart and estimates for similar improvements to be carried out in coming weeks at other government-run liquor outlets in Winnipeg.

After twice informing the Free Press the figures would be made public last Friday, an MLL spokeswoman reversed course this week and stated the information will be kept confidential because of concerns its release might compromise the related tendering process.

The sudden about-face is as puzzling as the decision itself is hard to defend.

Public interest in what’s happening at Liquor Marts is exceedingly high, in the wake of the past year’s escalation in the frequency and magnitude of robberies involving organized groups of thieves stealing massive amounts of product in swift and aggressive "swarm"-style attacks.

After months of what could best be described as middling responses by MLL, including the introduction of bottle locks on some high-priced products, the increased presence of security guards (whose mandate does not include physically confronting or detaining thieves) and some enhancement of co-ordination with local law enforcement — none of which seemed to stem the steady increase in organized-group robberies — the corporation was forced to take more drastic action after a Nov. 20 incident at the Tyndall Park outlet that included serious assaults on Liquor Mart employees.

The store was closed temporarily to allow for completion of a security upgrade that now includes a controlled entrance, complete with hardened-glass windows, at which customers are required to produce photo identification before a security guard presses a button that unlocks the door to allow access.

According to MLL, similar measures will be instituted at the remainder of its 30 Winnipeg stores within a couple of months.

MLL officials are not disclosing the cost of security upgrades at Liquor Marts. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

MLL officials are not disclosing the cost of security upgrades at Liquor Marts. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The costs associated with these necessary changes are very much the public’s business, given that it’s the public, through the provincial government and its arm’s-length Crown entities, that owns these facilities.

MLL’s revenues, expenses and individual-category expenditures are all laid out in its annual report; the cost of improving security in order to protect employees and customers and mitigate the losses associated with theft should also be publicly available.

While MLL does have a responsibility to safeguard its business interests by ensuring the best possible contract is achieved for security-related renovations, its executives must recognize the unusually high level of public interest in its ongoing crime-prevention struggle and concerns about the safety of those who venture into its retail stores.

There is very little public–relations risk in revealing the cost of security enhancements; given recent events, it’s safe to assume even the most austerity–minded of observers would grant MLL whatever fiscal latitude is required to make its Liquor Marts secure.

Construction-related specifics could be adequately protected while providing taxpayers with the realistic cost assessment to which they are fully entitled.

There is very little public-relations risk in revealing the cost of security enhancements; given recent events, it’s safe to assume even the most austerity-minded of observers would grant MLL whatever fiscal latitude is required to make its Liquor Marts secure.

The cost will minimally affect the corporation’s bottom line — certainly much less than the product-loss "shrinkage" the measures are intended to address — and if the Liquor Mart crime wave is finally reduced to a manageable trickle, it will be perceived by the public at large as money well spent.

Security? Absolutely. Get it done. The secrecy, however, is not acceptable.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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