Happy talk, dark reality

How do we reconcile the release this week of the sobering Vital Signs report with the report last week of a recent poll that shows almost all Red Deerians are happy to live here?

How do we reconcile the release this week of the sobering Vital Signs report with the report last week of a recent poll that shows almost all Red Deerians are happy to live here?

At one level, we have to realize that there is more to a community than statistics. The quality of leadership, the breadth of volunteerism and the wide and inclusive nature of local programs are all encouraging.

Ours is a warm, caring and progressive community. Red Deerians see the possibilities for greatness here every day and many of them are willing to take part in ensuring that greatness. We need to embrace the notion that the people of Red Deer are committed to their community, warts and all.

But there are warts, and they need to be expunged.

Vital Signs is an annual report (four years and running in Red Deer and much longer elsewhere in Canada) that compiles information from a number of sources internally and externally to issue a report card to the community. Spearheaded by the Community Foundations of Canada and driven locally by the Red Deer and District Community Foundation, the report has increasingly become a vital tool for leaders — and critics.

It offers some disconcerting news about Red Deer (2009 statistics):

• property and violent crime are both up

• we have far fewer police officers per 100,000 people than the average community

• our police hand out far more traffic tickets than elsewhere in the province or the country

• unemployment has risen and stands above the provincial average

• poverty has increased and demand for relief has also spiked

• housing costs remain prohibitively high for many families

• local gross domestic product has dropped

• we have far fewer doctors per 100,000 population than the average community in Canada or elsewhere in Alberta

• our obesity rates are above average

• we have more than the average number of smokers

• our high school graduation rates are below average

• our level of post-secondary schooling is below average

• there are wide concerns about the environment, from river water quality to alternative means of transportation.

That is a disconcerting picture of our community. But we cannot turn away from its reality — we need to see it as a clear checklist of tasks that must be undertaken, of conditions that must be reversed.

And we have commitment to do it, according to a poll conducted in August.

The city-commissioned Ipsos Reid poll released last week said that 99 per cent of 300 random poll subjects were happy to live in Red Deer. In fact, 49 per cent said they were very happy to live here.

Further, 88 per cent of poll respondents said they were satisfied with the value they get for tax dollars; 96 per cent said they are satisfied with the level of municipal services; and 87 per cent said they are happy with current police service.

Some of the happy talk of the Ipsos Reid poll can be attributed to a blissful lack of awareness. After all, only 22 per cent of all eligible Red Deer voters cast ballots in the 2007 municipal election, and many observers expect an even lower turnout on Oct. 18.

That means that a great deal of responsibility falls on those of us who will vote to make wise, informed choices — and to hold the victors accountable after the municipal election.

And the 36 Red Deer citizens who have stepped forward as candidates for mayor, city council, and public and Catholic school board positions need to talk now about the issues exposed in Vital Signs and how they will address them.

Happy talk and platitudes won’t reverse the disturbing trends revealed in Vital Signs.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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