Hess Village club owners fuming over policing costs

Hess Village bar owners say they're frustrated with the overall cost of policing - which can top $180,000 annually out of their own pockets.
Hess Village merchants say they're frustrated with the overall cost of policing - which can top $180,000 annually out of their own pockets. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Apparently you can put a price tag on safety. In Hess Village, it costs around $180,000 a year.

That's how much Hess Village bar and club owners are spending in paid-duty police officer fees, city officials say.

Police say the extra officers are needed to keep the peace, but it's a practice that club owners say is unique to Hamilton and just isn't sustainable. They're frustrated with the overall cost of policing and baffled that there is no mechanism to challenge fees with the police service.

Unusual arrangement

"We paid the police more last year than I paid myself," said Dean Collett, the owner of Hess Village's Sizzle/Koi and Diavlo.

Hess Village, by nature as an entertainment district, can be a trouble spot and requires an increased police presence, especially during the warmer part of the year when it attracts more patrons, police say.

So 10 paid duty overtime officers are brought in to supplement normal officers in Hess. But the police aren't footing the bill for the service, and neither is the city. The club owners are.

Collett has been running clubs in Hess for 13 years, and says the arrangement between Hess' owners and police doesn't exist anywhere else in Canada.

"It makes no sense. We are being asked to pay for policing in the public domain."

Assault calls in Hess that required on duty uniformed officers rose each year from 2009 to 2011. (Adam Carter/CBC)

According to a report issued in September by the city's planning and economic development department, the agreement between Hess bar owners and the police started in 2000, and the cost was shared between the two parties. (You can read that report in full here.)

"It was an informal agreement that we had for years," Collet said. "But then four or five years ago the police implemented their own plan."

Collet says that plan was developed without any consultation with bar owners.

According to the report, the program was formally established as a bylaw in 2005, which required the use of paid duty officers as a special condition of the business licence. The cost-sharing arrangement for Hess Village was split down the middle, with half of the paid duty officers (one sergeant and three constables) paid for by bar owners and four constables paid by Hamilton Police through its overtime budget.

That model changed in 2009. The current bylaw says Hess Village club operators must "retain a minimum of 10 special duty police officers for the Hess Village Entertainment District each Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. beginning April 15 and ending Nov. 15 each calendar year."

'How did it get so excessive? They're paying more in policing annually than they are in municipal taxes.'—Coun. Jason Farr

The onus is now on the Hess merchants to pay for those officers.

According to the report, the current bylaw also lets the police chief suspend the requirement to retain paid duty officers, expand the season, and increase or decrease the number of paid duty officers required. City officials say the decision as to how many officers are working on any given night is made with input from bar owners.

In 2011, invoices were issued to 15 Hess businesses totaling nearly $189,000 for police services from the second week of January to Oct 29. Police say the 2012 fee hovers around the $150,000 mark.

Police spokesperson Const. Debbie McGreal-Dinning told CBC Hamilton the drop in 2012 was the result of a combination of factors: establishments not requiring as many officers, some bars having closed down over time, and having downtown-focused supplementary ACTION officers present at Hess Village.

Despite the lower bill in 2012, club owners say they can't keep paying for policing.

"It's not sustainable, and we can't afford it," Collett said. "We're very heavily taxed as it is and have very thin profit margins."

One club owner in Hess who asked his name not be used said he pays more in policing fees than he does in municipal taxes.

"It's almost like legal extortion," he said.

But Collett says he also wants to make sure people know Hess Village business owners are in no way "anti-police."

"We want to maintain a good relationship with police and for the area to be safe," he said. "We care about our area and our neighbours."

Paying for duty

The use of paid duty officers isn't unique to Hamilton — but the mandatory implementation of them in an entertainment district like this is, bar owners say.

Paid duty officers are used in Toronto, Halton, Niagara, and other regions. Hamilton's paid duty rates are lower than the aforementioned regions, too. In Hamilton, a paid duty constable costs $61.58 per hour and a sergeant $71.43 per hour — with a 15 per cent administration fee and a 13 per cent HST charge.

By comparison, for Halton Region Police, it costs $84.49 an hour for a constable, and $95.62 an hour for a sergeant with the same administration fee and taxes.

What is unique about the Hess Village arrangement is that the bylaw requires bar owners to hire a specific number of paid duty officers and cover the costs, the city report says. In other cities, the use of paid duty officers is optional, according to Hess and downtown councillor Jason Farr.

CBC Hamilton contacted entertainment districts of a similar size and scope and asked them if they use mandatory paid duty officers in the same way Hess Village does. Here's what they had to say:

  • "There is no cost to any bars or anything like that here. Police just do routine walkthroughs. [Paid duty] isn't good for business. We don't think it's necessary." –Seamus O'Keefe, executive director of the George Street Association, Newfoundland.
  • "Ottawa Police don't want to go the paid duty route. We're already paying for it by being here. We generate an awful lot of income and sales taxes." –Jasna Jennings, executive director of the Byward Market Business Improvement Area, Ottawa.
  • "We really don't do anything like that. The costs are all covered by the city. These places generate so much revenue — so that's what we tell the city to justify the policing costs." –Murray Davison, executive director, Old Strathcona Business Improvement Area, Edmonton.

Protecting the public

For police in Hamilton, the reason for these costs is simple.

"We have to protect the public," said Ken Bond, police superintendent.

'We would say that safety and security expenses are the costs of doing business. This is not about fair.'—Janice Brown, Durand Neighbourhood Association

Bond says policing a high-traffic, alcohol-fueled area like Hess Village can often be a strain on normal duty officers. And while it's true bar owners have to chip in extra, police also provide officers over and above that number that "no one seems to talk about," Bond said.

He says downtown ACTION officers often get pulled off normal duty to supplement paid-duty officers. "You could have 15 ACTION officers down there and two horses," he said.

"It's always about safety for the public, first and foremost," he said.

From 2010 to 2011, the number of criminal arrests made in Hess rose from 24 to 34. Assault calls that needed uniformed patrol officers rose each year as well, from 19 in 2009, to 32 in 2010 and 44 in 2011.

"It's been pretty steady there for the last few years," Bond said.

"We base [the number of officers] on what's going on in there, and it can be such a pull on our resources."

The Durand Neighbourhood Association has also raised concerns about the police presence is Hess Village. In a statement to council from president Sarah Matthews, the association outlined that it wouldn't support any decrease in the number of paid duty officers in Hess Village. Nor would it support any financial arrangement that doesn't have bar owners paying at least 50 per cent of the cost of the paid duty program.

Janice Brown, secretary for the association, says she feels it's the owner's responsibility to run a safe establishment for both patrons and the community at large.

"We would say that safety and security expenses are the costs of doing business," she said. "This is not about fair."

'How did it get so excessive?'

Meanwhile, Coun. Farr told CBC Hamilton that police just keep adding to the numbers of paid duty cops that are deemed necessary in Hess Village.

"How did it get so excessive?" he said. "They're paying more in policing annually than they are in municipal taxes."

'We need to follow up on this and hear from the police as to what's going on.'—Coun. Lloyd Ferguson

"I can't find an example in Canada that comes even close to what we're doing here. It's not sustainable and it doesn't seem reasonable."

Last month, paid duty policing costs were presented to council as an issue for special events in the city, too.

To that end, Coun. Lloyd Ferguson tabled a motion to council on the issue to be moved to the grants committee so a "citywide resolution" can be found.

"I do see some trends here," Ferguson told CBC Hamilton. "We need to follow up on this and hear from the police as to what's going on."

But if nothing changes for businesses in Hess by Spring, Collett and some of the other bar owners in the area plan to challenge the legality of the current bylaw. They have had three independent legal council opinions on the decision, he says, and "all of them have said this bylaw is not legal."

If the bylaw still exists in its current iteration come springtime, when crowds start to flock back to Hess because of the warm weather, the group of owners have no problem going to court to strike it down, he says.

"We're confident we have a very strong case."