B.C.'s midsize cities look to hire more police officers in 2020
From Kelowna to Prince George to Terrace, municipal leaders asked to hire more RCMP
Paying for more police officers is shaping up to be one of the biggest challenges facing city councillors in B.C.'s midsize cities when they return to work in 2020.
From Kelowna to Prince George to Terrace, municipal leaders are being asked to hire more RCMP to respond to rising public safety concerns — as well as more bylaw officers to tackle problems associated with the province's addictions and housing crises.
"We have to do something, and we're going to do something," said Coun. Garth Frizzell, who chairs Prince George's budget and finance committee. "The question is: 'How?'"
City staff in Prince George have suggested a 4.2 per cent tax increase to pay for a suite of new services, including new bylaw officers, new private security guards, increased support for social service providers and additional overtime for RCMP to patrol the downtown core more regularly.
Todd Corrigal of the Prince George Chamber of Commerce said he supports extra safety measures, but doesn't believe they should come with tax increases.
"I think what needs to be looked at is a reallocation of resources," he said. "Council needs to take a really concerted look at how their budgets are shaped."
'We have to be brave': Kelowna councillor
But it may not be that simple. In Kelowna, council decided to add 11 new RCMP officers by 2021, and set a preliminary tax increase of 4.15 per cent to help pay for them.
It also decided not to pay for other new services, including an additional fire inspector to handle the influx of new rental properties in the community.
The decision to add so many new officers at once was pushed forward by Coun. Maxine DeHart, who said Kelowna needs to be bold in responding to mounting safety concerns.
"I just think we should take the plunge," she said during this month's budget debate. "We have to be brave to do these things."
According to an internal report, Kelowna needs 56 additional officers over the next five years to properly staff its RCMP detachment.
Though he supports adding more police, Coun. Luke Stack worried about the cost of hiring 11 officers in a single year.
"That is going to have a really, really challenging impact on our budget," he said. "I don't think the citizens will support that type of increase."
Staffing shortages also a challenge
Adding — and taking away — police officers can be a contentious issue among citizens. That's been the experience of Dawson Creek, where council had considered reducing the number of officers it pays to 22 from 25 in early 2019.
Mayor Dale Bumstead said because Dawson Creek regularly only has 21 or 22 officers on active duty, the cut would have freed up money without reducing the number of police on city streets.
But council backed away from the decision following a public backlash, while moving forward with other cuts such as closing the library on Sunday. In 2020 it plans to cancel evening and weekend bus service.
Meanwhile, the most recent report to council shows only 15 RCMP members are on active duty in Dawson Creek due to multiple "soft vacancies" such as parental leave and injury, though the detachment says at least five more officers will be working within a matter of weeks.
Asking for help
Another strategy for cities is to lobby the province and industry for help. That's happening in Terrace, where taxpayers are facing an increase of up to 7.4 per cent to fund new firefighters, RCMP and bylaw officers to respond to rapid growth brought on by construction of the nearby Canada LNG project.
"Our protective services are under a lot of strain," said Terrace CAO Heather Avison. "We need help."
In Prince George, Coun. Frizzell — who sits on the executive of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities — said he's heard that message from communities across the country, and he's hopeful it's received in Victoria and Ottawa as budgets are being set for the next fiscal year.
"We will definitely be running as efficient a ship as we can," Frizzell said. "But that's not enough. You can only make an organization efficient to a certain level."