Winnipeg mayor fires back at police in budget battle

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman says "gut-wrenching, difficult decisions have to be made" at budget times but the public shouldn't be fooled by doom-and-gloom claims from the police service.

Budget proposes $301M for police — most ever, Brian Bowman says

Mayor Brian Bowman says services that could deter crime also need funding and difficult budget choices must be made. (John Einarson/CBC)

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman says "gut-wrenching, difficult decisions have to be made" at budget times but the public shouldn't be fooled by doom-and-gloom claims from the police service.

"It's very important that listeners understand the police budget is set to increase by the largest share of any [city] department," Bowman told CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Wednesday.

The budgets of many departments are being frozen for at least four years, but the police service and transit are getting increases.

The proposal for the police service is a two per cent boost to $301 million — the most ever, Bowman said.

On Tuesday, police Chief Danny Smyth said he will have trouble maintaining the current number of officers and staff if he is forced to stick to a two per cent budget increase while having to honour a city-negotiated contract that gives officers a 2.5 per cent pay increase each year for five years.

The city and police union signed that deal in November 2017.

Smyth told police board members on Tuesday that the budget constraints could mean cutting 34 officers and 25 cadets — half the cadet complement — over the next three years.

That could mean less traffic enforcement and police presence downtown as well as decreases in crime prevention and community engagement, he said.

'Difficult decisions'

Typically, budget conversations between city committees, including the police board, and various departments are done behind closed doors, and the public doesn't hear department heads stating their cases and concerns.

But this year, Bowman said he wanted "those presentations and that dialogue through the committees" to be done publicly.

"You'll hear very difficult decisions being asked to be made … to balance our books," Bowman said.

"It should surprise no one that a director or chief wants more funds to do the job that we ask of them."

One way to find more money, and maintain or even boost front-line policing, is by renegotiating the police pension plan, Bowman said.

The city says more than $12 million can be freed up by changing the plan, which a city report has called one of the most expensive in the country. Part of that could then be put back into the police budget, Bowman said.

"I'd like to see some of those funds to be available to protect front-line police officer positions. I'd like to see them to be used for police, not for unsustainable pension benefits," he said.

The report by staff, published last week, says the city contributes more to the police pension plan than its members do. Police also are allowed to count overtime as pensionable earnings, something Bowman wants to change.

The Winnipeg Police Association, the union representing officers, served Bowman notice that it would seek arbitration if the city tries to make those changes.

"They're good at opposing and asking for more money. What they're not good at is providing tangible solutions for how we can make better use of historic [levels of] funds for the police service," Bowman said.

Slap in the face

Police association president Moe Sabourin called the move a slap in the face to "our members out there who are putting their lives on the line every day."

The changes being proposed by Bowman and the executive policy committee would impact benefits bargained for during the past 30 years, Sabourin said. In some cases, members sacrificed other things to win those benefits, he said.

"To get a better pension, we may have taken less wages or we may have taken less annual leave."

The changes being proposed by Brian Bowman and the executive policy committee would impact benefits bargained for during the past 30 years, police association president Moe Sabourin says. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

It was built to allow officers to retire early and collect their full pension without financial penalty, a necessity in the career, Sabourin said.

"We have a good pension because most police officers will die five years before any other citizen because of the stress, because of the shift work," he said. "It is a young person's profession. It takes a toll on your body and on your mind.

"Now the city is giving them a big thank-you by trying to claw back benefits that we've earned."

Social issues

The budget battle and the warning from the police service about possible job cuts come just as the police service is restructuring staff deployments to manage the demands from a surge in crime.

Asked what Bowman would say to the public to justify a potential reduction in the number of officers at a time like this, he urged them to encourage their councillors to support the police pension reforms.

The plan has yet to go to city council, where it would need approval.

"It's going to allow for funds that could be used for front-line policing at no additional cost to taxpayers," Bowman said.

He asked people to understand there are other services that need funding — things that could help deter people from turning to crime and thereby reduce demands on the police service. 

"We have to recognize, as a community, we can't arrest our way out of some of the social issues we're dealing with," he said.

"We have a role and a responsibility as council to make sure resources are there for other services as well, while we're increasing the police budget."


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