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Why can 350 people hold Winnipeg hostage? Civic election issues 3 and 4

Everyone running for office in the current civic election should be asked to answer one question: Why are 350 people allowed to hold a city of 700,000 hostage?

Which brings us to the second half of our examination of 'The Big Four' election issues candidates are skirting instead of addressing head on.

3. The Car Theft Epidemic

In 1992 the City of Winnipeg had the lowest rate of auto theft of any major city in Canada.1992 seems so far, far away.Last year (2005) almost 12,000 vehicles were reported stolen to Winnipeg police.

The year before that it was over 13,000.
The year before that, 10,000 plus.
35,000 stolen autos in three years.
50,000 in five years, and that's not counting 2006 yet.

Manitoba Public Insurance paid in the vicinity of $150 million in claims over the past five years, and since 84 percent of provincial car theft is in Winnipeg, that means a touch over $126 million went to Winnipeg car owners.

This year MPI is spending $40 million to get motorists to install immobilizers and is bragging that "only" about 10,000 cars will be stolen in 2006. Whoopee. The statistics are appalling.

Just as appalling is city council's refusal to even admit there is a problem. Council discusses parking lots, traffic lights and bicycle paths but has never had an emergency debate on the car theft epidemic. Car thieves have been responsible for 12 deaths in the past five years, and 100 serious injuries.

If West Nile Virus had been as deadly the city would have declared a health emergency.

City Hall has to make car theft a priority. It's a quality of life issue that affects all citizens.

Up to now, mayor and councillors have been content to let people think car theft if purely a provincial matter. And what a disaster that has been.

The Government of Manitoba has proved to be completely incompetent at fighting car thieves. Winnipeg politicians have to seize the initiative and force the Province to do a better job.

The government is not impotent. We keep hearing that about 300 hard-core auto thieves are responsible for most of the problem. And most of them are teenagers that the courts molly-coddle, and they know it.

Stealing cars is not a healthy activity for children. The province can use Child Welfare legislation to take control of the car thieves who escape any penalties from the court system. If parents can't control their children, then the province must act in loco parentis.

We can take 300 thieves off the streets and put them into 24-hour provincial care.
It can be done. The money is obviously there. What's missing is the will.

Winnipeg politicians have to get that message to the Legislature. They have to tell MLA's that unless something effective is done to stop the car theft epidemic immediately, then the Mayor and councillors will, as a block, target the incumbents in city ridings in the next provincial election.

Silence is not an option for anyone running for mayor or for city council.

4. Panhandlers and other downtown cancers

Winnipeg used to be infamous for having the worst skid row in the country. The geniuses at City Hall decided to clean up the Main Street strip by knocking down the derelict hotels where the derelicts would hang out.

As a result, skid row expanded south and has now basically relocated from Main Street to Portage Avenue. The Heart of Downtown Winnipeg: Now infested with derelicts and panhandlers and drug dealers.

Left behind was Thunderbird House, a disaster in its own right and the latest white elephant in line for government handouts. Plus a new crop of derelicts. The colony of glue sniffers that hangs around Thunderbird House is a scene right out of the Dawn of the Dead zombie movies. Is this a harbinger of what downtown is to become?

Winnipeg politicians have spent years denying the cancer that's spreading throughout the downtown. There's only 50 aggressive panhandlers, they say. Put that in perspective, that 50 derelicts is more than all the police officers in cruiser cars answering calls in all of Winnipeg.

Former Mayor Glen Murray's response was to throw street parties.
You've got cancer? Hey, let's par-tay. It'll make you feel better.

Under Mayor Sam Katz's watch the answer was street ambassadors to make people feel safer downtown. That's like telling you you're doing well because there are so many nurses in the hospital.

Katz has given street patrols the authority to detain impaired panhandlers under the Intoxicated Persons's Detention Act. Call it minor surgery when aggressive treatment is required.

The cancer has spread. Downtown may already be in Stage Four.

Ask the security guards at Portage Place who still wear body armour to protect themselves from knife-wielding gang members.
Ask the crack dealer who openly conducts business outside Air Canada park each day.
Ask the downtown hotel staffers who have to witness the welfare payday whoop-ups.
Ask the residents of Winnipeg (or as we read on a weekly basis, visiting musicians and performers), and return from arts events to find their windows smashed, dashboard hacked, garage door openers and registration stolen (the better to commit home invasions) -- if they find any trace of their vehicles at all.

Councillor wannabes don't hold campaign appearances downtown because they don't want to be asked "Will you do something - anything! - about this rot?"

Mayoral candidates don't have campaign appearances downtown because they don't want to see the contempt in the eyes of people who work downtown when they unveil their empty solutions to the problem.

Even the Sals closes at 5 PM.

How can 350 people hold a city of 700,000 hostage?
Because we let them.

People running for office think that talking about bike paths is what voters want to hear. They think vision means waxing poetic about a "green city" with highspeed electric trains whizzing people about. They think a promise for Wifi internet access downtown is what wins votes.

But if any of the candidates really listened, they would know in one day that Winnipeggers have their priorities straight.

First comes safety, something which is deteriorating every year.
Then comes efficiency. Winnipeggers hate to see their hard-earned money wasted on "visions".

Only after they are assured they can work, shop and raise their families in a safe environment, and that their tax dollars are spent wisely, will they say: Okay, what next?

That's Running for Office 101, the book Coun. Donald Benham never bought with his well-used city hall credit card.

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