Vancouver police chief slams city's closed-door decision to cut force's budget by $3.5M
Council's finance committee made decision at in camera meeting Wednesday night
Vancouver's chief of police has condemned the city's decision to cut the force's budget by $3.5 million without public debate.
The City of Vancouver approved the motion for the one-per-cent cut for the remainder of 2020 during an in camera meeting on Wednesday night, with the aim of helping offset the financial effects of the COVID-19 crisis.
But Chief Adam Palmer raised concerns that the decision was made in camera with no consultation over issues of public safety.
"There is a lack of public transparency and accountability with this in camera process. This was decided away from the eyes of the public," Palmer wrote to the city in an email obtained by CBC.
"This is particularly concerning regarding matters of public safety that impact all Vancouverites — decisions that have a fundamental impact on public safety should not be made in private."
However, city staff say the Vancouver Police Department was warned twice about the need to cut costs and did nothing.
A letter on April 14 informed the police board of the need to trim budgets, with the city facing a projected $152-million shortfall and a legal requirement to balance the books by year end.
"In its response to council's request dated April 27, 2020, the Vancouver Police Board declined to identify any operating savings," city staff told CBC News on Thursday.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said the cut is needed because of the city's loss of revenue and potential property tax defaults as a result of COVID-19. The VPD takes up 21 per cent of the city's budget.
"These are really tough discussions we're having, and it's a result of our revenue loss," he said.
"I have requested help from the provincial and federal governments, none has come, and this leads to decisions about finance."
Actual cut could be $8.5M, chief says
The decision to make an immediate cut to relieve "budget pressures created by COVID-19," along with other measures approved Wednesday night in an in-camera session of the council's finance committee, was outlined in an email by city manager Sadhu Johnston.
The email also confirms that council expects the Vancouver Police Board will pursue collective agreements with all three unions representing VPD employees resulting in a zero per cent increase in compensation costs for 2020.
Factoring in how he predicts that arbitration will end in June, Palmer said the cuts will actually reduce the VPD budget by $8.5 million and cost the force up to 80 officers.
"This is very concerning given the fact that we have been operating with reduced service levels for the past decade and have only recently caught up to 2009 staffing levels," Palmer wrote.
20% of city's budget goes to funding force
The VPD budget has increased in recent years to $340.4 million, more than one-fifth of the city's entire operating budget.
Coun. Christine Boyle told CBC that the fire department was able to find ways to cut one per cent.
"Everyone needs to do their part, particularly a budget item that is 20 per cent of our budget. We need to be able to find some savings there," she said.
Palmer said officers have in recent months faced the increased pressures of pipeline protests and then the pandemic. He said they are currently facing more calls due to anti-Asian racism, arsons and commercial break-ins, as well as dealing with the decampment of Oppenheimer Park.
"Our VPD members have been on the front lines throughout the entire pandemic, 24/7, putting themselves at risk to keep Vancouver safe (including VPD members becoming infected with COVID-19 in the performance of their duties)," Palmer wrote.
Vancouver Police Union president Ralph Kaisers says the budget cut will hit frontline staff directly. He says morale is already low because of the pressures of the pandemic.
He says the force has spent years recovering from past budget cuts and the move will see officers leave for Surrey, which is in the process of transitioning from the RCMP to a municipal police department.
"If we don't have enough people there's going to be a problem, a huge problem," said Kaisers.
He said there is frustration that the city is spending so much money on projects that could be handled at a provincial level, such as homelessness — and the recent in-camera decision will make that sting more.
"I am in complete disbelief that city council has undermined public safety in such a disrespectful manner. Who hides behind closed doors to have a secret meeting, without any public consultations, or have discussions with their very own frontline first responders, as to what impacts this may have on them?" Kaisers wrote in response to the city email.