Redirecting police funds to public health a no-go at council

Ottawa city council rejected a move by Coun. Shawn Menard on Wednesday that would have given the Ottawa Police Service a smaller budget increase next year, and a larger one to Ottawa Public Health.

Councillors Menard and McKenney lose bid to modify budget goals in a 20 to 4 vote

Ottawa city council refused to direct staff to allow the police service a smaller budget increase this year, citing the many reforms Chief Peter Sloly plans to make. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Ottawa city council rejected a move by Coun. Shawn Menard on Wednesday that would have given the Ottawa Police Service a smaller budget increase next year, and a larger one to Ottawa Public Health.

Council had a passionate discussion about funding levels for the two services, each undergoing its own changes and challenges, as they finalized the targets for the 2021 budget.

Menard and Coun. Catherine McKenney proposed limiting the police increase to 1.5 per cent and redirecting the difference, which Menard estimated at $4 million, to public health. They argued public health was better placed to tackle mental health issues and addictions.

Petty theft from vehicles and people sleeping where residents don't want to see them are not issues for the police, agreed Coun. Jeff Leiper.

"These issues come down to poverty and health. Health, health, health," said Leiper. "We have tried to solve those issues for a generation by increasing police budgets and policing our way out of social issues, and it hasn't worked."

Council has agreed at the beginning of the past two, four-year terms that no budget increase can take place beyond a tax cap without a corresponding decrease in spending in another area.

Leiper argued to make a choice to invest in health rather than policing.

Police reforms cost money

The Ottawa police recently hired an employment lawyer to review its culture. It also plans to create new neighbourhood resource teams and a new mental health strategy, said Ottawa Police Services board chair, Coun. Diane Deans.

"The board wants change. The board needs to invest in change. And that costs money," said Deans. "A simple budget reduction is not going to take us where we all want to go."

Coun. Rawlson King also refused to redirect funds from police, given the reforms police Chief Peter Sloly has promised, aimed at building the public's trust. 

"Removing resources at this time would undercut and undermine efforts at reforming one of the root causes confronting the [Ottawa Police Service], which is systemic racism," said King.

Public health under pressure

Council voted 20 to 4 against the Menard and McKenney motion, with only Leiper and Mathieu Fleury joining them in support.

City staff will now continue as planned to present a 2021 draft budget on Nov. 4 that provides no more than a 3 per cent increase for police from property taxes and 2.5 per cent increase for public health. Both also get a 1.5 per cent increase from a growth in property assessments. The police budget last year was $358 million, while public health's was $74 million, of which the city pays 30 per cent.

Ottawa medical officer of health Vera Etches, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, and Keith Egli, chair of the city's Board of Health, take part in a news conference, days before the COVID-19 shutdown began in March 2020. (Kate Porter/CBC)

But the public health budget itself remains under pressure, and the chair of the Ottawa Board of Health said the discussion was far from over.

"I don't think you will ever find a more challenging time for public health," said Coun. Keith Egli. "I'm not going to lie to you, and Dr. Etches didn't lie to you. Two and a half per cent, I don't think is going to do it."

Ottawa's medical officer of health Vera Etches had told council earlier in its meeting how the core work of Ottawa Public Health, such as dental clinics and parenting supports, remain on the back burner while staff focus on the pandemic.

The province has promised to help with COVID-19 costs, but Etches has still not heard what help the province will provide for its core public health work.

Egli agreed to meet with the mayor, city manager and Etches to pressure the province to come forward with more financial help.

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