Toronto police board tussles with defiant chief

A special meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board sees its members demand that Chief Bill Blair bow to their will on the force's budget, as he says he can do no better.

Civilian body insists on 10% budget cut, while Blair says he's done his best

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has balked at demands from the mayor to cut 10 per cent from the force's operating budget. The chief instead presented a plan last week that would raise the budget by 1.5 per cent. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

A special meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board on Wednesday erupted into a confrontation between the board's members and Chief Bill Blair over the force's budget, as the mayor's office tries to get city departments to cut their spending.

Mayor Rob Ford has told all municipal departments to prepare to trim their budgets by 10 per cent, but Blair has repeatedly said the police's finances have no wiggle room.

On Wednesday, he reaffirmed his position from last week that a 1.5 per cent spending increase is the best he can do for next year, saying that the collective agreement for officers guarantees them a pay raise.

Police board members refused to allow the chief to back out of the fiscal obligations facing the rest of the city, however, and insisted he return to them next week with two scenarios: a 10 per cent budget cut for 2012, which would see hundreds of officers laid off as early as Jan. 1, and a 10 per cent trim over two years.

"The board wants the target met in 2012, but also recognizes that there are constraints," board chair Alok Mukherjee said. "So the board is saying if you cannot do that in one year, then bring back options to achieve the target in two years." 

The vast majority of the police department's $915-million budget is spent on salaries for officers and civilian employees, meaning layoffs are inevitable if the force is to cut spending. Ford has said he doesn't want layoffs, but 650 officers and 250 civilians would have to go by Jan. 1 in order to reach the budget goal, Blair said Wednesday.

If the mayor backs down on forcing the police to trim their expenses, he would face a massive backlash from other departments that are being made to slash costs.

Crime rates falling

Board members grilled Blair on Wednesday, demanding to know why more money should be spent on policing when crime rates have been falling for nearly 40 years.

Blair retorted that policing cannot always be measured in statistics.

"In many of our neighbourhoods ... we're experiencing totally unacceptable levels of violence," the chief said.

Blair said he's done all he can in his budget review and can't see how he'll be able to satisfy the mayor.

"We have gone through every one of our accounts on a line-by-line basis," he said.

Coun. Michael Thompson, the vice-chairman of the police board, said Toronto police should be treated no differently than other global police forces, which are enduring cutbacks.

"There are severe measures that are being taken right across the world in terms of policing cost," Thompson said. "It takes a lot more creative thinking with respect to how the organization is run, how it's structured."

Thompson said partnerships between private security companies and the police might be another idea worth further examination.

"How do you set up a system that allows you to be able to integrate with those private organizations, along with the public safety of a policing organization?" he said.

Mukherjee has been critical of police spending, noting policing costs increase year after year and have to stop.