Tensions high as police board passes controversial budget

After a tense debate about the fiscal sensibility of public sector employees, the Hamilton Police Services board has voted in favour of a 3.9-per cent budget increase.

Whitehead says lack of private sector experience is a factor

Chief Glenn De Caire (right), with legal counsel Marco Visentini, explains the new draft budget to the police services board. The board voted 5-2 to approve the budget. It will now go to city council. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

After a tense debate about the fiscal sensibility of public sector employees, the Hamilton Police Services board has voted in favour of a 3.9-per cent budget increase.

Board members voted 5-2 Monday to accept Chief Glenn De Caire's budget, which had been reduced twice leading up to the meeting. 

Board members who voted in favour:

  • Mayor Bob Bratina
  • Chair Nancy DiGregorio (provincial appointee)
  • Jim Kay (citizen appointee)
  • Madeleine Levy (provincial appointee)
  • Irene Stayshyn (provincial appointee)

Members who voted against:

  • Coun. Bernie Morelli
  • Coun. Terry Whitehead

De Caire first offered a draft budget in November with a $7.1-million increase, or 5.25 per cent over last year. He returned to the board in December with a 4.75-per cent increase, or $6.4 million. The new version represents a $5,290,700 increase.

Counc. Terry Whitehead ruffled feathers when he cast his dissenting vote, saying that public sector employees look at budgets through "a different lens."

"The challenge is when you come from a culture where there are expectations as opposed to someone from the private sector that understands there's a limited fund, you've got a different lens you're looking through," he said. "I would only suggest that's somewhat represented around this board today."

Private sector limitations

Coun. Bernie Morelli of Ward 3 voted against a 3.9-per cent increase too, citing fiscal constraints on residents and businesses. But Whitehead, a Mountain councillor representing Ward 8, has been the most vocal opponent of an increase. Hamilton's police budgets have been rising exponentially for the past 10 years, he said.

Whitehead said he has received about 2,000 comments from Hamiltonians about a budget increase. He argued that private sector employees might better understand budget limitations.

"If you work in the public sector and that's your vast experience, you're used to looking through a lens of meeting expectations and … I would say entitlement. I'm going to use the word right now," said Whitehead after the meeting.

"Because traditionally in the public sector, you could always go back to the good old tax trough and ask for more money, whereas in the private sector, you don't have that ability. That's a different lens."

Budget tension

Whitehead's comments offended some around the board table. Mayor Bob Bratina, who voted in favour of the budget, said he worked in the private sector for 45 years, "so that's my private sector experience."

Chair Nancy DiGregorio also took offence at Whitehead's words.

"I don't like your comments," she said. "You're out of order."

Comparing a police service to the private sector is an uneven comparison, De Caire added.

"We don't produce things," he said. "We don't produce widgets. When we get to the point where someone picks up the phone, we have to have the capacity to respond. We don't have the right to say, 'We've had cutbacks. We're not coming.'

"At three o'clock in the morning, when there's a shooting or a stabbing, when we're investigating sexual assaults or child abuse, we don't have that choice. We have to provide that service. This budget gives us the capacity to do that."

The budget tension spilled over into a vote to elect the board Chair. All but Whitehead voted in favour of DiGregorio serving another year as Chair, although DiGregorio said she only wanted to do it until June.

After the meeting, Whitehead said he voted against her election because he didn't like comments she made in the media about the Chair being there to support the chief.

Council vote

The budget now goes to the general issues committee on Feb. 20. If council votes against it, it returns to the board, which can decide whether to appeal to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission. If that happens, arguments are presented and the commission rules.

Like earlier versions, this draft includes hiring 20 new officers and one new civilian staff member. But that hiring will be staggered, De Caire said.

"We have looked at every component of our organization that we can," he said. "However, we do need those 20 officers."