City budget could squeeze officers off front line, Winnipeg police chief says

Budget pressures on the Winnipeg Police Service could mean fewer officers on streets, police Chief Danny Smyth says.

Chief Danny Smyth says 2 per cent increase for Winnipeg Police Service could mean service cuts

The Winnipeg Police Service is battling with city hall over its budget this year. (CBC)

Budget pressures on the Winnipeg Police Service could mean fewer officers on streets, police Chief Danny Smyth says.

The budget constraints could mean cutting 34 officers and 25 cadets — half the cadet complement — over next three years, Smyth told a Winnipeg Police Board budget meeting Tuesday, reiterating what he said earlier the same day at a police news conference about a significant weapons seizure.

Smyth said he will have trouble maintaining the size of the service's current complement of officers and staff if he is forced to stick to a two per cent budget increase and honour labour agreements that gave officers pay hikes.

"This is going to be a challenge for me, because the same administration negotiated a five-year contract [for officers] that included a 2.5 per cent increase, so I have a significant shortfall," Smyth said. 

The city and police union signed a contract in November 2017.

Smyth told police board members the cuts could mean less traffic enforcement and police presence downtown as well as decreases in crime prevention and community engagement.

WPS chief Danny Smyth says city budget constraints could blunt crime-fighting efforts by his officers on the streets. (Jaison Empson CBC )

The budget demands are pressing against police efforts to manage a recent wave of violent crime, he said.

"I'm having a hard time reconciling the good work that's being done in the community by our front-line members and the budget stuff, and it's causing me some concern," Smyth said.

Smyth said the police service is dealing with the effects of meth, gang violence and other criminal behaviour on its ability to respond. 

The service has been strained by the 40 homicides in Winnipeg in recent weeks.

"What's unique about this year is the volume," Smyth told the police board.

The city is also at odds with the union representing police officers over an effort to claw back costs in their pension plan.

Pension fight heads to arbitration

The city's executive policy committee voted Tuesday to make changes to the police pension plan and within minutes, the Winnipeg Police Association handed Mayor Brian Bowman notice that it was seeking arbitration.

The city hopes to save more than $12 million by changing Winnipeg police officers' pension plan, which a city report calls one of the most expensive in the country.

The report by staff, published last week, says the city contributes more to the police pension plan than its members do. They are allowed to count overtime as pensionable earnings and can retire early and receive payments for 40 or more years.

"They can change the bylaw if they want; they can't change the benefits," Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin said after the EPC vote on Tuesday.

Sabourin gave Bowman an envelope containing the union's notice that it would seek arbitration as well as an interim Manitoba Labour Board order that would prevent the city from pushing ahead with a change to the pension plan until the board makes a ruling.

Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin says union will ask arbitrator to halt city moves while considering case (John Einarson CBC )

Sabourin believes the city's effort is a tactic to force the union back to the table after threatening to make these changes for years.

"I believe they are trying to scare some of our members into retiring. What better way to reduce a workforce than have several members retire?" Sabourin told reporters.

Battle of legal opinions and a dissenting voice on EPC

Both the union and the city have legal opinions on whether a by–law can be used to change benefits to a pension plan.

St. Vital councillor Brian Mayes was the lone member of EPC to vote against amending the by–law.

Mayes, who is a lawyer and has worked on labour and pension issues, says he's seen the city's legal opinion and isn't sure it meets the test.

"Legal opinions rarely say it's a slam–dunk and I've seen the city's legal opinion and I don't think this is a slam–dunk for the city. I do think it is something we should be negotiating," Mayes said.

Mayor Brian Bowman says part of the savings (approximately $1.5 million) from changing the plan will be plowed back into the police budget and doesn't believe the police association is interested in negotiating anything on the pension plan.

"Let's be very clear. The union opposed this three years ago when dialogue began. They opposed it two years ago, they opposed it last year. They oppose it now. They will oppose it next year," Bowman said.