Put service before cuts

Around the world, the places that deliver the most services to people in their everyday lives are found in the cities. That’s where the schools are, the hospitals, fire halls and police stations.

Around the world, the places that deliver the most services to people in their everyday lives are found in the cities. That’s where the schools are, the hospitals, fire halls and police stations.

But it’s the municipalities that have had to make the toughest budget decisions in an economic downturn, because cuts in spending have their most immediate effect in loss of services in cities, where the decision-makers are somebody’s next-door neighbour.

We’ve already seen news stories of towns and cities in the United States that are de-paving their streets — turning them to dusty gravel instead of asphalt because it’s cheaper.

We’ve also read of the slow death of public schools in U.S. municipalities gripped by widespread economic turndown; the rampant foreclosure of homes is echoing in their school board budgets.

Want to buy a vacation home in the American sunbelt, cheap? Just be glad you don’t need to use the schools. And hope you don’t have to call the police sometime, either. Or the fire department, especially if you haven’t paid the new private for-profit fire department your annual fee.

It sounded like an extreme example to read about the towns that had laid off large portions of their police forces, telling residents to simply arm themselves and “be careful.”

But today, even London, England, is in the throes of a policing downturn. London has 4,000 so-called “hobby bobbies,” unpaid volunteer policemen and women who wear the same uniform and have the same powers as a regular constable. The plan is to have as many as 7,000 by the time the 2012 Olympics roll around for that city.

Imagine, in a city that has already seen a terrorist attack on its mass transit system, there is less money for police security. Their program is to cut police spending by four per cent a year for the next while.

Put that in the context of a world where scary and extreme behaviour is far more common than before.

Edmonton and Calgary each have recently seen race-based violence. Can you imagine yourself feeling any more secure in your life, knowing that a whole new breed of violence is making its way into your town’s daily news, but your municipality can only officially respond with fewer, less-trained volunteer police?

Maybe this is just a case of drawing too many divergent strings together, but Red Deer is under-served by our police force. We have fewer officers on the job in Red Deer per thousand residents than most other Canadian cities.

And there’s an attitude of citizen unrest reflected in the vote tallies at the last municipal elections where sitting mayors and councillors we sent packing all through our region. The prevailing wind is blowing toward less government, which is always felt first in service cuts at municipalities.

Red Deer is not a hollowing-out municipality in a crumbled-down industrial zone. Nor are we a mega-city facing the pressures of rising unemployment and a growing ethnic underclass that has little hope for a better future.

So we should take care not to act like either one. Our new city council’s work has just begun for a new term. Let’s not take our lead from other places that do not live our reality.

Our quality of life is far more dependent on the excellence of our local services than it is on arbitrarily cutting spending for its own sake. Let’s not create the conditions that make the hard decisions necessary in other cities.

One thinks their voters would gladly trade places with us — and pay higher taxes to “bigger” governments in the bargain.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.