In refusing Hamilton Police's most recent budget request, city councillors and the police chief could be setting the stage for the first binding arbitration decision for a police budget in Ontario in years.

"It doesn't send a good message," said Coun. Terry Whitehead, who sits on Hamilton's police services board.

But things do seem to be heading in that direction. Councillors voted 11 to four in favour of a 3.52 per cent budget increase over Chief Glenn De Caire's 3.71 per cent request at Wednesday's city council meeting. That came after De Caire repeatedly slashed his budget in the last few months from an original 5.25 per cent budget hike request — a number most councillors said was completely unreasonable.

"Council spoke pretty strongly with that vote," Whitehead said.

It isn't common for a governing body to push back against a police budget request to the point that an outside entity has to resolve the situation. Since 1969, the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) has only dealt with 25 budget hearings for the entire province. The most recent took place in 2009 in Niagara, and that was the first time the commission had stepped in in a decade.

According to the OCPC, Hamilton has never had a police budget go to binding arbitration.

Hamilton's police services board is scheduled to meet on April 15. If the budget can't be amended to the satisfaction of both sides by that point, it will likely go to the OCPC for a decision.

That decision would be final, and the city would be bound to accept whatever budget request the OCPC sees as reasonable. The commission "won't comment on any matters that may or may not be before the commission," said communications officer Ani Asik.

McMaster University labour expert Wayne Lewchuk says that binding arbitration cases don't happen often because it can be a risky situation for both sides.

"When you go to binding arbitration, in some ways you lose a bit of control over the outcome," Lewchuk, a labour and economics professor said. "So usually both parties are a little bit reluctant to go that route. There's always a risk that when you put things in someone else's hands — you could end up surprised."

"This is a bit of a game of chicken."

Timeline

Finding a police budget that works for everyone involved has been an ongoing issue for the city since last year. Click on the timeline below for a look at just how the city and the police force got to this point.