CBC Investigates

As Nova Scotia's police costs skyrocket, communities seek to rein in spending

In a bid to curb the rising costs of policing, the Town of Shelburne in southwestern Nova Scotia is considering turning to another force. It just happens to be based 100 kilometres away.

Police budgets total a collective $214M for the province's cities, towns and municipalities

Shelburne is considering moving away from the RCMP in favour of an agreement with Bridgewater police in a bid to curb costs. (CBC)

In a bid to curb the rising costs of policing, the Town of Shelburne in southwestern Nova Scotia is considering turning to another force. It just happens to be based 100 kilometres away.

"We love the RCMP. We just would like to be able to afford to pay for them," said Shelburne Mayor Karen Mattatall.

The town currently pays $736,970 annually for 4.5 RCMP officers, which represents about 18 per cent of its overall budget.

It's looking at an arrangement with the Bridgewater Police Service that would cost roughly $630,000 for a local detachment of the same size.

Shelburne is one of many cash-strapped municipalities across the province looking to cut policing costs.

According to an analysis by CBC News, Nova Scotia's towns, municipalities and cities spend almost $214 million on policing a year — a price tag that is only going up.

For many, it's not clear whether turning down the RCMP in favour of local police forces would save much money.

But it's certainly something some councils are wondering in the face of a steady stream of financial demands, from fixing potholes to ensuring safe drinking water.

Shelburne's apparent savings would likely be cut in half as the town would have to buy a police car and construct a secure building for its new on-call officers.

"I'm not saying that Bridgewater is the best thing, but I want to save money. That's the bottom line," Shelburne resident Doug Langley said last month during a public meeting into the matter.

Should cost be the only factor?

During that same meeting, David Levy, a councillor with the adjacent District of Shelburne, argued that cost savings should not be the only factor.

"We're going to give up four policemen who live in our community with their families," he said.

He suggests a switch from a federal RCMP contract currently in place for Shelburne to a provincial model, which is used by Levy's district and the nearby Town of Lockeport.

Shelburne Mayor Karen Mattatall says the town appreciates its relationship with the RCMP but needs to consider the costs. (CBC)

Municipalities were once permitted to directly negotiate RCMP contracts with Ottawa, but this is no longer allowed, except for those agreements that are grandfathered, such as in Shelburne. Provincial models are negotiated by the provincial Justice Department, such as in Lockeport, so the contract details are the same.

"For our 5.5 officers doing the same effective work, we pay $710,000, so they actually pay more for less," said Levy.

He also argued that the RCMP from the three communities already co-operate for "the whole of eastern Shelburne County" and a change could "fragment our police force."

Mattatall said she is open to any idea that will reduce costs.

The town is waiting on a new proposal from the RCMP, the details of which will be discussed at a public hearing scheduled for March 14. Officials from Lockeport and the District of Shelburne are expected to attend.

But no matter which option the town council decides is best, Nova Scotia's justice minister will have the final say.

"My sole responsibility is to ensure minimum standards are there for public safety," said Mark Furey, who spent 32 years in the RCMP before retiring. "We will look at every case individually, when and if the requests are presented to my office."

Big bump in Halifax policing costs

In Halifax, the budget for Halifax Regional Police has increased 38 per cent over the past 10 years.

"That's not sustainable," Coun. Steve Craig, chair of the police commission, said during a council debate in February.

The municipality is planning to hire an expert to do a review of Halifax's police services.

Halifax Coun. Steve Craig says the increase in policing costs for the city over the last 10 years isn't sustainable. (CBC)

The Town of Digby, the Town of Oxford and the Municipality of the County of Cumberland have also asked the RCMP and the province's Justice Department for a review of policing costs.

Annapolis Royal did its own study in 2017. Police spending in the town of less than 500 totals $264,819, served by 3.5 officers, including a police chief.

The review found that sharing police services with either Kentville or Bridgewater — each about 100 kilometres away — would increase costs 50 to 70 per cent, and switching to the RCMP could be three times as expensive as the current model.

Some police forces, such as Westville and Stellarton, share a police chief, dispatching operations and lockup facilities in a bid to save money.

Do police officers have to do all the work?

According to Mark Phillips, the chief administrative officer (CAO) for Kentville, there are other options municipalities can consider.

In 2011, Phillips presented to the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities on the economics of policing.

"The Motor Vehicle Act can be enforced with special constables," Phillips recently told CBC News. "There's an untapped opportunity to respond with a less-expensive resource. There are tiered systems, but we don't see it too much in Nova Scotia."

Shelburne held a community meeting last month on the issue of policing. Another one is slated for Wednesday, March 14. (CBC)

Dispatching work can also be contracted to independent, third-party operators for after-hours calls.

But Phillips warns the company should be based locally so they understand the geography.

Back in Bridgewater, the community has hired a senior safety co-ordinator, which is one way to ensure police are doing actual police work, according to its CAO.

"This co-ordinator is able to respond to calls that are not true policing in nature, that are more community service work," said Richard MacLellan.

But whatever option is chosen by the province's municipalities as they grapple with policing costs, Furey has offered this advice.

"I encourage municipalities to be creative in finding solutions," he said. "Strong relationships lead to great joint work and shared costs. Opportunities are there."

About the Author

Pam Berman


Pam Berman is CBC Nova Scotia's municipal affairs reporter. She's been a journalist for almost 35 years and has covered Halifax regional council since 1997. That includes four municipal elections, 19 budgets and countless meetings. Story ideas can be sent to pam.berman@cbc.ca


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