Hamilton councillors have sent the police budget back, a move that could lead to the budget going to provincial arbitration.

Councillors voted Wednesday to ask for a 3.52-per cent increase over last year's $140,219,590 budget for the Hamilton Police Service. The police services board has approved a 3.71-per cent budget, a difference of about $260,000.

Now the budget goes back to the board, likely on April 15. If the board doesn't modify it, the matter goes to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission for binding arbitration.

Board chair Nancy DiGregorio wouldn't speculate on what happens next.

"I'm not prepared to comment on personal feelings," she said. "This is definitely going to have to be a board decision. You can't talk about personal feelings when you're dealing with a police budget."

The budget has been trimmed three times so far. At issue is the hiring of 20 new officers and one new civilian staff member, required to deal with Hamilton's growing population and an increasing amount of work downloaded from the province, Deputy Chief Ken Leenderste told councillors on Wednesday.

Hiring the officers, Leendertse said, is "our No. 1 priority."

But most councillors questioned whether the hires were necessary. Some favoured a 3.3-per cent increase over last year, which would be the increase with the new hires stripped from the budget.

Without the officers, Hamilton Police Service would have to examine its service delivery, Leendertse said.

"Obviously we need the officers," he said. "There's a significant amount of work that needs to be done."

Hamilton has 153 officers per 100,000 people, lower than the provincial average of 198, said Leendertse, who is acting chief while Chief Glenn De Caire is out of the country.

Mayor Bob Bratina cited similar numbers in his defense of the budget increase.

"If we're so desperate for dollars, [the city] could have made other adjustments," he said. "We could have made other adjustments to the way we spend money."

But Coun. Judi Partridge of Flamborough said city taxpayers can't support the proposed increase, and the province can't either. And her constituents have spoken loud and clear.

"I have never had so many phone calls and emails from my taxpayers ranting on about this police budget," she said. "I've been taken aback by how many, starting since Christmas, have been saying 'You should not stand by and approve this.'

"The message has to be we cannot afford it and somebody, some political force, has to hear that message and do something about it."

Who voted in favour of asking for a 3.52-per-cent increase:

Terry Whitehead, Scott Duvall, Tom Jackson, Chad Collins, Sam Merulla, Bernie Morelli, Jason Farr, Brian McHattie, Russ Powers, Maria Pearson, Lloyd Ferguson

Who voted against:

Bob Bratina, Brenda Johnson, Brad Clark, Judi Partridge

Also at Wednesday's meeting:

  • A new business lease for the Lister Block at 28 James St. N., a historic property that will soon be home to Mezza Caffe. Councillors will also consider leasing unit #106 to 28 Lister Inc., a company that would open a 1920s/1930s New York/Chicago-style grill house. The restaurant would seat 120 and include a patio on King William Street.

CBC Hamilton's Samantha Craggs is tweeting from the meeting. Follow her coverage here: