Operational Funding for the Winnipeg Police Helicopter

The following is Clause 1 of the Standing Committee Recommendation which deals with the funding of operating costs for the proposed Winnipeg Police helicopter which was approved by Council in January of 2010. 

That subject to approval of new incremental funding from the Province of Manitoba for all ongoing annual operating costs, estimated at $1.3 million in 2010 plus cost increases thereafter, the Winnipeg Police Service be directed to procure a fully equipped Flight Operations Unit together with a hangar to house the unit.  (Emphasis added is mine) 

Several key words are highlighted.  The first is all.  In his attempt to spin this scenario to  best advantage, the Mayor has talked about being agreeable to limiting increases to an agreed upon formula such as the cost of living or consumer price index.  On the surface that may sound reasonable, however, it only limits increases in expenditures to a percentage above the amount spent in the previous year.  It does not prevent the introduction of new expenditures.  The agreement binds the province to all ongoing annual operating costs.  The province would incur  full liability for expenditures it has no control over. 

This approach can be likened to the ‘we’re talking about less than 40 thousand dollars’ argument.  The mayor is essentially borrowing a line from the used car salesman’s handbook:  it’s the ‘if you are willing to spend $1.3 million, surely you’re not going to let this deal get away for a mere 40 thousand’ line.

The point that can not be ignored is that the province is being asked to enter into uncharted waters.  One question that needs to be asked and answered is, how firm is the estimated operating cost figure?  Why does that become important?  Because, based on the wording of the clause passed by Council, if the estimate is off by a couple of hundred thousand dollars the province will be on the hook for that as well. 

In the context of financial agreements and contracts ALL is a very inclusive term and can be a very expensive word.  And to top it all off, the phrase plus cost increases thereafter leaves the door wide open to additional expenditures that could be billed to the province.   The wording is much to loose.  A very careful, detailed and in depth examination of what is included in the estimate of $1.3 million for operating costs is clearly in order. 

To further bolster his argument, the mayor has pulled out and played the ‘lives are at stake’ card.  The fact is, that can be said about almost everything involving policing.  Police policy and procedure on vehicle pursuits, response to domestic violence, and use of force and a myriad of other issues can also put lives at risk – perhaps much more so than having or not having a helicopter.  But none of those issues are currently on the political radar nor are they likely to the subject of discussion as people cast their ballots in the civic election later this year.  The helicopter, on the other hand, is very much on the political radar.  In a political forum using an argument such as ‘lives are at stake’ can be  successfully employed as a  tactic because it strikes a chord with the public.  It is also difficult, if not impossible, to quantify or to either prove or disprove.  How can anyone argue against a move if failure to make the move could cost lives?  One can only hope that citizens (the electorate) see though this sort of gamesmanship and demand decisions and outcomes based on the merits of the issue versus the use of slick political spin tactics and rhetoric.    

If the city is not confident enough in its estimate of operating expenses to commit itself to a firm funding number they need to go back to the drawing board and rework their estimate.  Further, if they are not confident that the addition of a helicopter will produce at least enough savings to offset inflationary cost increases in the future years, then one might conclude that the rationale behind the entire proposal is flawed.  This is a classic ‘buyer beware’ scenario.  The buyer in this case is the province, which means all of us.

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