City raids reserves to keep police budget in line

In an odd budget shell game that played out Wednesday morning, the Ottawa Police Service saw the $4.8 million it thought it was getting in one-time finding cut in half before lunchtime.

But mayor snatches back half of $4.8M in promised 'one-time' police spending

Newly elected police board chair Coun. Diane Deans says the use of reserves to fund police operations is 'far from perfect.' (Laura Osman/CBC)

The City of Ottawa giveth $4.8 million, and Mayor Jim Watson taketh half of it away.

In an odd shell game that involved moving pots of reserve money from department to department, the Ottawa Police Service believed it was getting $4.8 million to help fund an operating budget gap Wednesday, only to find out less than two hours later that the mayor is redirecting half of the money to other projects.

Here's how it went down. 

Police told the Ottawa Police Services Board that it needs about $17.1 million more for its 2019 budget, which would have translated to a 5-per-cent tax increase.

In order to keep the tax increase to three per cent, which was the direction given by council, senior city staff agreed to give the force $4.8 million from its main reserve fund, and work on ways to reduce the force's expenses in future years.

Mayor Jim Watson said in his budget speech that he wasn't willing to give the police $4.8 million to bridge its operating gap. (CBC)

Surprise announcement

But not two hours after Chief Charles Bordeleau tabled the 2019 draft budget early Wednesday morning, Watson announced he was taking half of the bridge funding back.

"When [the finance committee] meets to consider its budget on March 5, I will be recommending that [the committee] reduce the one-time contribution to the OPS from $4.8 million to $2.4 million," Watson said in his budget speech.

The mayor is redirecting $2 million to housing, and the other $400,000 to programs for at-risk youths.

That will leave the police looking for $2.4 million in cuts.

There's a suggestion that the city and police consolidate their backroom operations: the city took over the police's payroll a few years back, for example, and it could to the same for the force's human resources and IT departments.

But these are not quick fixes, and there's also no guarantee that consolidating services will save substantial money.

1/3 of new officers on traffic duty

Bordeleau said that an additional $12.1 million is needed in 2019 just to maintain existing services, with most of the increase going to automatic wage hikes. 

Police are also asking for $3.7 million to hire 30 new officers, 10 of which will be assigned to traffic enforcement — a measure Watson campaigned on in last fall's election — and another $1.3 million to continue to modernize their administrative operations.

Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau says new officers will be directed to traffic, enhancing community policing and targeting violence against women. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

The city is also allocating revenue from three new red light cameras — not existing ones — to police, which should bring in about $450,000 a year.

More significantly, the city was giving police $4.8 million from its tax-stabilization fund, a reserve fund usually raided at the end of the fiscal year to keep taxes steady.

"It's not a perfect solution by any stretch of the imagination," said police board chair Coun. Diane. Deans when asked about the reserve funds early in the morning..

"But my goal is to make sure the police service is not under funded and that they have the money that they need to keep this community safe."

It's not clear what the board will do now that the mayor has said he's against giving police $4.8 million.

Even before the mayor's surprise declaration, Deans directed Bordeleau to bring a list of budget expenditures that do not impact front-line police service to the board's audit and finance committee meeting on Feb. 20, where the public is welcome to make presentations.


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