British Columbia

Cop out: Some say police budget hiccups in Victoria, Esquimalt point to deeper problems

A dispute between Victoria and Esquimalt over 2018's VicPD budget was only resolved Thursday. Deliberations over 2019's budget in Victoria are already contentious. Does something need to change in a unique-in-B.C. policing system?

Former deputy chief says differences in 2 communities create friction over issue

Some say the way policing works in Victoria and Esquimalt could do with a re-think. (Liz McArthur/CBC)

It may not be Police Academy or Naked Gun, but to some observers, disputes over police budgets in Victoria and Esquimalt have become a long-running law enforcement farce.

The two neigbouring cities have a unique-in-B.C. arrangement for policing: they share a force, Victoria Police Department, and both municipalities must agree on its budget every year.

Last year, Esquimalt declined to pay for six more officers. That meant last year's budget was never approved, until Thursday, when the province ordered the cities to pay for the extra officers.

This year, it is Victoria's turn. VicPD wants a $3.2 million bump to its approximately $54 million budget, but Victoria council is only offering about $1.5 million.

Police insist without the budgets they request and the officers they pay for, public safety is at stake.

'Friction'

John Ducker retired from VicPD in 2013 as deputy chief after 35 years on the force.

But he says the past five years of his service were made more challenging by dealing with two city councils with very different expectations.

"This friction has been ongoing between the two municipalities," Ducker said. "It is very difficult to try and work both sides of the equation when you're hamstrung at the beginning with limited resources around your policing."

He agreed that Victoria has more intense policing demands while Esquimalt is a quieter bedroom community.

Politicians from both municipalities, he said, too often look at stats like crime rates that may or may not reflect preventative policing successes.

"That, to me, just doesn't make any sense," he added. "You're being punished for success."

Complexities

Speaking as executive director of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, Catherine Holt says proper policing is the "foundation" of safe communities.

Holt is also a former member of the police board that helps set VicPD's budget, having last served about 10 years ago.

She thinks there is a big problem with mayors serving as police board chairs for municipal forces, as required by provincial law. She said that arrangement can lead to police becoming a political football.

In the case of VicPD, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins serve as co-chairs.

"They have to approve the police budget as the chair of the board and then they have to review it as mayor and council and that's what's gone sideways for two years in a row," Holt said.

"The complexity ... is exaggerated in our case because we have two municipalities, therefore two mayors and twice the opportunity for the police budget to be hung up."

Mayors disagree

Desjardins acknowledged that VicPD faces a "significant challenge" policing two very different communities.

Victoria, she said, has more intense policing demands but also has a bigger tax base with its downtown and population.

Speaking before Thursday's order from the province to hire more officers, she expressed a desire to renegotiate the framework agreement. That agreement underpins the arrangement, guarantees certain service levels for each community and divides payment.

"Our statistics are saying crime is going down and therefore, VicPD is doing an awesome job," Desjardins said. "Therefore, we don't need more officers."

Mayor Helps on the other hand, thinks the arrangement makes sense as it stands and could lead to further integration of police services in the region.

"When there's a disagreement, it goes to the province," Helps said. "I think everything's working just as it should."

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