Policing concerns dominate Ottawa budget debate

Policing issues dominated Wednesday's debate over the City of Ottawa's 2017 budget, but in the end councillors approved a spending plan that will see the average homeowner pay an extra $72 in taxes next year.

2% property tax increase to cost average homeowner $72 in 2017

Ottawa city council passed a budget that will see property taxes rise by 2%, the transit levy increase by 2.5% and garbage disposal fees go up by an extra $2 in 2017. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

Policing issues dominated the discussion over Ottawa's 2017 budget, with three councillors voting against the force's spending plan and a number of others expressing concern over this year's near-record number of homicides, changes to community policing and speeding in the city's neighbourhoods.

Council finally passed the budget, which will see property taxes rise by two per cent, the transit levy hiked 2.5 per cent and the fee residents pay for garbage disposal go up by an extra $2 in 2017.

For owners of a home assessed at $395,500, the tax increase will mean an additional $72 next year.

Concerns over police resources

For the first time in recent memory, the police budget was a focus of intense discussion. 

The police budget will increase by $8.9 million to $320.2 million — an increase of about $11 for the average homeowner — and calls for the hiring of 25 new officers, the second contingent in a three-year plan to hire 75 officers.

But some councillors suggested that number may not be enough to meet the policing needs of this city.

"Residents of Kitchissippi are not convinced you're getting the resources you need," Coun. Jeff Leiper told Chief Charles Bordeleau.

There have been several shootings and homicides in Leiper's ward recently. He supported the police budget but told the chief "not to hesitate" to ask for more next year.

"I have considerable concern about this budget," said Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans. While she said she believes Ottawa is a "very safe community," she noted a "growing crisis in confidence."

Bordeleau agreed that 2016 has been a troubling year, and pointed to a "disturbing rapid escalation of violence" in the city.

But while he said the high number of homicides so far this year — 22 — "is concerning," he's"not going to hit the panic button yet."

The chief characterized this year's level of homicides as a "spike" but not necessarily the "new normal," despite the fact that another senior police official told CBC that this year's level of violence is here to stay.

Community policing changes

One major worry is the upcoming changes to the community policing strategy.

Although the number of constables assigned to community policing is set to fall to 10 from 15, Bordeleau told council police will be "more focused" because their administrative work will be done by others.

But some councillors weren't buying that argument.

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury protested by voting against the police budget because he said there hasn't been adequate public consultation or explanation of how community policing will change in the new year.

And Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who also voted against the budget, said the changes will mean fewer resources. She said she's concerned that concentrating officers in more "high-risk" areas will eventually put under-policed communities at risk as well.

River ward Coun. Riley Brockington — the third councillor to vote against the police budget — brought up speeding as a major concern. He said he's worried that as officers are deployed to other crimes, there are fewer resources to deal with speeding vehicles, which he compared to "loaded weapons."

"More people were killed and injured in traffic accidents than violent crimes," echoed Capital Coun. David Chernushenko, who ended up voting in favour of the police budget.

EquiPass approved

The 2017 budget sees the introduction of the EquiPass, a $57 transit pass for low-income residents who do not qualify for other discounted passes. The EquiPass will eventually cost the city $2.7 million annually.

Social agencies will receive an additional $610,000, most of which will go toward base funding. Those groups will also receive a two per cent cost of living increase, slightly higher than the current rate of 1.5 per cent.

Arts groups and local festivals looking for more stable, predictable annual funding did not see the city recommit to a 2012 plan intended to deliver per capita funding in line with other big Canadian cities.

However, the budget funnels $500,000 toward 2017 celebrations and another $150,000 for an "Arts Momentum Fund" aimed at showcasing local arts.

The Great Canadian Theatre Company also received a $250,000 grant that will wipe out its remaining long-term debt.