British Columbia

Prince George councillors say they're paying more for police than other cities and want to know why

Prince George city councillors want a clearer idea of why they are paying more for police than other comparable municipalities.

Councillors say the city's RCMP budget seems to be higher than some larger municipalities

The Prince George RCMP detachment. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Prince George city councillors want a clearer idea of why they are paying more for police than other comparable municipalities.

The call for more information comes after council agreed to increase its annual RCMP budget by $2.69 million on Wednesday night, for a total projected operating cost of $30.8 million in 2022.

Paying for police makes up the highest portion of Prince George's annual operating costs which, along with bylaw, fire and other protective services, accounts for more than a third of the city's operating expenses.

The increase — which is being forced by recent RCMP union negotiations with the federal government — was the most contentious part of two days of budget negotiations held Jan. 23 and 25, which resulted in the approval of a three per cent tax increase for the coming year.

The city of Prince George's annual operating costs for 2021. (City of Prince George)

"It seems like the only thing rising faster than crime is the cost of policing," Coun. Terri McConnachie said during the first day of discussions. (Local RCMP have yet to release crime statistics for 2021 but recorded a decrease in calls in 2020 following a five-year high in 2019.)

While staff approved the budget increase, they also requested a more thorough accounting of how that money is being spent after Coun. Cori Ramsay noted other cities seem to pay less for more services.

 

According to a comparison of other municipalities shared by Ramsay, Prince George pays $216,782 per officer while Nanaimo and Saanich, both with a larger population, pay $187,495 and $155,748, respectively.

Kelowna, whose population is nearly double Prince George's, was shown to have a police budget that is only 25 percent higher, and which includes bylaw and other community services.

"We need more information," Ramsay said Wednesday. "I'm really uncomfortable with us paying more than our peer municipalities who are frankly getting more bang for their buck."

RCMP accused of 'politicizing' budget

The lion's share of the local RCMP's budget increase is earmarked for wages and back pay for officers obligated by the new collective bargaining agreement negotiated between the police force's union and the federal government in the fall.

Although the federal government negotiated the pay increase, it is Canadian cities who use the police service being asked to foot the bill, which has resulted in multiple cities, including Prince George, to ask Ottawa to help cover the costs.

Seeking to offset the looming pay hike, council had asked, at a meeting held Dec. 20, for RCMP and city staff to explore $1 million in savings in the police budget.

That report came to council this week and proposed cutting two programs: the Downtown Safety Unit, which provides enhanced patrols for downtown businesses and residents, and Car 60, which pairs police officers with clinical nurses specializing in mental health to respond to mental health calls.

Prince George RCMP Supt. Shaun Wright said there are few options for trimming the police budget. (Faith Fundal/CBC)

Supt. Shaun Wright said those options were put on the table because they fell outside of the RCMP's core duties.

"We looked at all aspects of the operation and those were what I would describe as nice to have, really nice to have, but not essential for our core function," he told council.

Council dismissed those options, with several expressing dismay that police only offered up two widely popular programs as options for cuts, rather than finding other ways to save money.

"The RCMP are getting political on this," Coun. Brian Skakun said, saying he had been fielding many calls from residents concerned about the programs that could be cut.

Coun. McConnachie said she had "expected more" from police and staff and that the proposal to cut downtown patrols and mental health support had caused "fear and uncertainty" among residents.

As for the cost per officer, Supt. Wright said it is difficult to compare different communities because they have different crime rates and needs.

Instead, he suggested an outside firm be hired to provide a thorough analysis of how the city's police budget is used in comparison to other similar municipalities.

Council will make a decision on that at a later date.

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