However the stand off ends between Taber town council and the Taber Police Service in budget negotiations coming off the heels of an announced $150,000 cut to the policing budget last week, it certainly serves as a crossroads in the citizenry’s perception of the value of the police force to the community.
Quiz a random dozen people on the street and you are likely to get 12 different opinions on the bombshell that was dropped on a 4-3 town council decision to par down the policing budget by $150,000 for 2016.
Claims can be made by the Taber Municipal Police Commission that town council’s decision came out of left field, but anyone paying attention to the economic outlook both provincially and locally can see in recent years, belt tightening was coming. Just because one accepts one’s budget for information does not mean council will accept it. There have been recommendations from various boards in the past that council have not passed through.
The unfortunate thing for Taber right now is we are growing at a sluggish rate. The last four years has seen Taber grow .85 per cent per year with a current population hovering around 8,400 which means few new tax-paying families are settling in town limits. Major industry has not set up shop here in recent years and in fact, some have closed their doors, including Lucerne. Financial administration has been stressing to town council repeatedly it needs to start building up its reserves, which are dangerously low. The province is hovering around $6 billion in debt and people are losing their jobs in droves or seeing their wages stagnate, or even being cut so people can save their jobs. Alberta’s unemployment rate in November was seven per cent as the province has seen record highs of people collecting EI in 2015.
The Taber Municipal Police Commission requested a budget in which its increase was more than double the town’s push to keep property taxes at a 1.5 per cent increase for 2016, and also more than double the last recorded rate of inflation for Canada at 1.47 per cent (www.inflation.eu). By the police commission’s own narrative, the bulk of the 3.93 per cent increase comes from police and CUPE wages, although it was only an estimate as contract negotiations between the town and the Taber Police Association are still ongoing, so the number could be even higher depending on how negotiations pan out. So of the town asking the police service to cut $150,000 from its budget, simply doing a zero per cent increase to wages in 2016 for Taber police officers would take a healthy chunk out of that $150,000 in efficiencies that have been requested by the town without raising the spectre of losing any possible staff from the Taber Police Service.
If the town and the Taber Police Association cannot reach an agreement on a figure in contract negotiations, that means it will be left up to an arbitrator and then all bets are off as to what way the winds of contract negotiations will blow. It is very difficult for comparisons in an arbitrator’s decision to Taber’s unique situation, in that it has the smallest population of any entity in Alberta that has its own municipal police force. The next closest is Lacombe at 12,700, according to a 2014 municipal census. And comparing any wage increase to the municipal police forces of places like Calgary and Edmonton is apples and oranges. Taber has experienced near stalemate growth for the last number of years while Calgary and Edmonton saw the two highest growths in population in all of Canada, as a February 2015 report would attest. Also, large urban areas have vastly different policing scenarios than small rural communities with volume and types of calls.
Muddying the waters even further is what seems to be conflicting messages from town council about fiscal restraint when it comes to labour. The town just hired a public relations person this year and discussions are in the works to add an additional position in the town’s planning and development department for 2016. Each department, including the police department, brings something to the town that makes it better.
It is up to the citizenry to decide which brings the greatest return on investment in tax dollars. Nevertheless, it is still a conflicting message to be able to hire new positions while asking for restraints or cutbacks on others by town council.
Part of the frustration by the public is also the cloak of secrecy when it comes to municipal scrutiny of police financials due to the Police Act. Open discourse is limited in council chambers due to sensitivities inherent in the Police Act. In practice, this means that the town’s elected representatives on town council are effectively barred from drilling down too deeply into specific items in the police budget, which in turn is overseen by a largely appointed body in the Taber Municipal Police Commission, even though the police service is funded in large part by taxpayers.
As a case in point, on Monday the Taber Municipal Police Commission met with Taber town council to discuss the mandated budget revision — two municipal bodies representative of the public discussing the allocation of public funds — but the public was barred from witnessing the discussion as it was held behind closed doors in camera, which in essence if not in practice always furthers perceptions that both organizations might have something to hide.
But in the end, it all comes down to the economic realities of the day. In the most recent Justice and Solicitor General Cost Review of Alberta Municipal Police Report, Taber shared the highest percentage of total operating expenses in its municipality for its police force along with Camrose at 14.2 per cent, comparing 50 different municipalities. Taber was also the highest ratio of all 50 municipalities for policing mills at 3.19. Policing mills is the municipality’s total police operating expenses divided by the equalized assessment. The ratio is a standardized measure of the municipality’s potential to pay for policing given its equalized assessment of its tax base. The lower the ratio, the greater the potential the municipality has to pay for more policing if it so chooses.
Constantly increasing the costs of departments with pay increases while no new tax paying revenues are coming in to compensate forces two realities. One is constantly increased property taxes which lowers the chances of attracting new families and businesses of wanting to take root in the community which pays public employees’ wages and infrastructure projects in town. The other is forcing the department in question to up its own revenue streams. That would force the Taber Police Service to concentrate more of its time on fine generation through traffic enforcement and less time in crime prevention and crime investigations. Both are not desirable outcomes.
The Town of Taber should be proud of its police force which has served its community with distinction which is evident by its clearance rates and also community involvement with many of its members past work hours. But no one is immune from the economic realities of the day, the Taber Police Service included, regardless of its stellar reputation.
If part of its hardships of trying to find $150,000 in efficiencies in its budget stems from its association voting the police force a pay raise in a time when wages are being lost in the private sector with tumbling Loonie values and oil prices, then that hardship is at least partially self inflicted.