Friday, January 30, 2009

Who will get stuck with the $1-billion Games security bill?

You can't blame Colin Hansen for getting cranky about Olympic security costs.
But you also shouldn't forget this mess is partly the B.C. Liberals' fault.
With a year to go until the Vancouver Games, and weeks before the province's budget day, the only thing certain is that security costs are hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.
That's no surprise. The budget - $175 million to be split between the federal and provincial governments - was recognized as unrealistically low from day one.
But now the cost estimates are reported to be around the $1-billion mark.
And since the province is on the hook for Games' cost overruns, that means a big hit for provincial taxpayers this year.
How big is still to be determined. Hansen's officials are wrangling with the feds and the RCMP about what should be included in the actual costs of Games security. They argue that the bill should only include security at the Games venues. Other costs are a federal responsibility, the province says.
Sorting the cost-sharing out won't be easy.
Any manager will recognize the opportunity this situation offers to the RCMP. New equipment, fancy technology, training costs - from the perspective of the force, the more you can dump into the budget the better. It's money you don't have to find somewhere else.
And given the tough economic times, the federal government will be trying to limit its contribution.
Even though the original figure was always seen as unrealistically low - except by various ministers in the Campbell government, who maintained until last year that it was just fine - the costs are staggering.
How can security for a 17-day sporting event cost $1 billion? If you used the money for salaries and hired police officers from everywhere at overtime rates, you could have 111,000 security people working for a month - about 800 to watch each athlete.
Of course, it's more complex. There are border issues and transportation and media and traffic. But $1 billion equals about $60 million per day of the Games. It seems crazy.
The costs were inevitably going to be an embarrassment for the government. The claim that provincial Games spending is strictly limited to $600 million has always been obviously false and contradicted by the auditor general.
The security overrun will enforce even Gordon Campbell to concede the reality.
The overrun, up until the economic slump, could have been covered out of the government's expected big surpluses.
Now a $300-million or $400-million overrun could be enough to push the government into a deficit. That would mean repealing the no-deficit law - the right thing to do, but a big reversal of years of Liberal lectures on the evils of red ink.
And the overrun raises other problems.
Government ministries have been looking for spending that can be cut or put off in light of the plunging economy. Those kinds of changes would be unpopular, but could be pitched as necessary sacrifices.
But that will be undermined if the government is paying a big chunk of cash for Olympic security after years of insisting the budget was adequate.
The governments might try and dance around the issue. If the talks are continuing, they could say the costs are still unknown and would be covered out of a contingency fund.
But having no handle on costs at this point would leave the Liberals open to attack during the election campaign.
It's a tricky problem, in large part because of the timing. Neither the federal Conservatives nor the provincial Liberals want to get stuck with a big bill right now. But neither wants a public spat, either.
And while the problems might be forgotten a year from now, if the Games are a success, the election is May 12. The security problems - and the lack of openness - are going to feature heavily in the NDP campaign.
Footnote: For an example of the scale of Games security, the first major exercise is scheduled for the coming week, involving up to six naval warships, military helicopters and jet fighters and RCMP and emergency personnel.


Anonymous said...

I understand that the BC Liberals (who aren't really Liberals) plan to spell out their main election campaign theme for 2009:


What spin-doctoring! What hypocrisy!

Don't blame the NDP for saying "Oh yeah?"

Looks to me like we're all The Opposition now.


DPL said...

No matter which Canadian government gets stung, it all comes from our taxes. Great cartoon today. The feds bring in money to the BC treasury, in a wheel barrow and VANOC going out the other door with a similar wheelbarrow full of the cash. Somebody has to curb those big thinkers

Dawn Steele said...

When a government refuses to deal honestly with the people, it forces everyone, no matter what their political stripes, into playing the role of "The Opposition."

And all the spin about the NDP being responsible for the Asian crisis & tech crash that dragged us down in the 1990s is going to look increasingly hollow as BC gets dragged down again in this latest global downturn, especially with initiatives under BC Liberal management now crashing so spectacularly.

NRF said...

Games security: "...the first major exercise is scheduled for the coming week, involving up to six naval warships, military helicopters and jet fighters and RCMP and emergency personnel."

So, if the anarchists and anti-globalization wingnuts get out of hand, we'll send in the RCMP with tasers blazing, bombard Whistler from ships in Howe Sound, strafe the mountains with CF-18 Hornets and, most deadly of all, the remaining Sea King helicopters will hover overhead.