Ottawa police budget must balance salaries, savings

The Ottawa police draft budget to be tabled Thursday will look to add 25 new officers after a six-year hiring freeze.

Draft budget to add 25 new officers after 6-year hiring freeze

The Ottawa Police Service presents its 2016 draft budget on Nov. 12 (Jean-Sebastien Marier/CBC)

When it presents its 2016 draft budget on Thursday, the Ottawa Police Service will be facing two competing realities: a meagre funding increase imposed by a cash-strapped council and rapidly-increasing salary costs.

At the same time, the force plans to finally add 25 new officers, ending a six-year hiring freeze.

"We're trying to find efficiencies and cost savings," said Ottawa Police Services Board chair Eli El-Chantiry.

The police force has been working hard to find those efficiencies, such as going electronic with police record checks and creating centres for collision reporting.

"But there's only so much you can do when only 17 per cent of the budget is flexible," El-Chantiry said.

The other 83 per cent of its approximately $300-million operating budget is locked up in salaries.

The fundamental problem we have is the province has yet to grapple with the out-of-control settlements we continue to have imposed on us.- Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson

More than seven in 10 Ottawa police officers made over $100,000 last year, according to a CBC analysis of public salary disclosures for the last few years.

Just under 1,000 of the force's more than 1,300 sworn officers made the most recent sunshine list. They include 719 constables, the lowest rank. Overtime, paid duty and a retro-active payouts pushed a few hundred over the threshold, but annual base pay for first-class constables, who are three years into the job, has now reached $90,000, while base pay for sergeants, the next rank up, is over $100,000.

Contract talks for police routinely go to arbitration, which awarded raises of 2.5 per cent in 2013 and 2014, and nearly three per cent in 2011 and 2012.

The latest round of negotiations has gone again to an arbitrator, who won't decide on a pay raise for police for 2015 until December, after the budget is finalized.

Union rejects council's 'artificial' budget cap 

Police salary increases are in line with raises in other professions, said Matt Skof, head of the Ottawa Police Association.

Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof says Ottawa police salaries are going up at the same rate as police in other jurisdictions. (CBC Ottawa)

It's the cap city council imposes on the police budget that's the problem, he argued.

City council has promised to keep tax increases low and the force is tasked to do its part. Were it not for the extra 1.3 per cent from taxes on new development police receive, raises for officers would already be eating into the budget.

By following council's lead and trying to stay within a two-per-cent increase while police salaries in other cities may go up more than that, Ottawa police will likely veer toward arbitrated settlements, said Skof.

"It handcuffs and limits the ability to have open discussions around cost savings, and around flexibility and around salaries," said Skof.

Changes to policing, arbitration expected

Mayor Jim Watson disagrees. For him the problem is not the tax rate increase council sets, but the arbitration system.

"The fundamental problem we have is the province has yet to grapple with the out-of-control settlements we continue to have imposed on us, whether it's police, fire or other sectors," he told reporters at the end of October.

Ottawa will continue to press for changes to the system to account for a municipality's ability to pay, he said.

Policing appears on the verge of major change in Ontario. After years of discussion about how to deal with rising costs in an era when crime rates are falling, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Yasir Naqvi has announced the province is developing a new "Strategy for a Safer Ontario."

Details are scarce, but in recent speeches Naqvi has hinted the strategy will include better training and performance requirements for board members who oversee police services. The Ontario government also wants police to work more closely with social and health care workers, in an attempt to cut down on the time highly-paid officers spend responding to calls involving people with mental illnesses — people who would be better served by the professionals specifically trained to help them.

For his part, El-Chantiry hopes re-opening the Police Services Act will mean changes that can also cut costs and solve the budget problem long-term.

"Let police do the real police work," said El-Chantiry; work they were hired — and are paid six-digit salaries — to do, he added.


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