By Trevor Busch
A six-figure reduction to the Taber Police Service’s 2016 budget mandated by town council last week has the police service and commission struggling with options to address the prospect of lost funding.
At their Dec. 7 special budget meeting, town council voted 4-3 to approve a $150,000 operating cut to the Taber Municipal Police Commission (Taber Police Service) 2016 budget. Coun.(s) Rick Popadynetz, Laura Ross-Giroux and Randy Sparks voted in opposition to the motion.
“I personally have been thinking about this, we’re going to have some changes at the top, and I’ve been looking it over,” said Mayor Henk DeVlieger, who represented the deciding vote in the motion. “I know we can’t go into items of the police commission’s budget, but just based on information I’ve seen over the last while, what can change — I would like to see that budget reduced by $150,000.”
Tabled for discussion as a budget narrative at council’s Nov. 23 meeting, the Taber Municipal Police Commission’s 2016 budget is seeking an overall 3.93 per cent increase.
“I would like to see the police budget reduced by $150,000, based on what I’ve seen, as far as changes at the top and extra income that’s been coming in on a consistent basis,” continued DeVlieger. “We have to be very careful — I noticed they’re asking for a four per cent increase. I personally have a problem with that. We have to start doing things differently.”
According to a Cost Review of Alberta Municipal Police issued by Alberta Justice and Solicitor General and detailing the costs per municipality of policing in Alberta for 50 municipalities, as of 2013 in terms of overall cost the Taber Police Service was ranked as one of the top 10 most expensive services in the province, including in the top 10 for cost per officer ($209,196), in the top 10 for cost per capita ($361), and in the top 10 for per cent of total operating expenses (14.2 per cent), and when expressed as a part of the mill rate (the lower the ratio, the greater potential the municipality has to pay for more policing) Taber actually tops the high end of the list at 3.19 mills.
As originally tabled, the 2016 net budget (before a council-mandated $150,000 reduction) for the Taber Police Service rang in at $2,164,350, up $81,745 over 2015 ($2,082,605), for an increase of 3.93 per cent. Total revenues for 2016 are estimated at $1,113,412, up from $1,083,750 in 2015. Total expenditures for 2016 are expected to be $3,277,762, up from $3,166,355 in 2015. By far the largest proportion of the previous figure is made up of salaries, wages and benefits, estimated to top out at $2,636,233.
“With respect to the police commission budget, the only aspect of the reason why it increased wasn’t because of anything other than salaries,” said finance director Devon Wannup. “CUPE has already been negotiated — that’s your dispatchers, com ops people — that’s already been incorporated in there. The only aspect that is increased is based on agreements, or estimates, that we’ve already made with regards to salaries. Their salaries increased by $114,000, compared year over year, but their total increase was only about $85,000, which is less than the total increase on their salaries.”
Mayor DeVlieger acknowledged the concerns of administration, who appeared to be caught off guard by council’s position on the police budget, but reiterated a need for the commission and service to be “realistic” about prevailing financial realities.
“I fully understand that, but with the chief retiring — I cannot go into details of the police commission budget — there’s change at the top, and with what’s actually been happening the last couple of years with fine revenues, it seems like every year there’s a surplus — let’s get realistic and come up with realistic figures, instead of creating another’s year’s surplus, we need to be realistic about it.”
CAO Greg Birch suggested town council might want to consult with the Taber Municipal Police Commission prior to making a decision on the matter, as it could have a significant impact on the police service’s operations, including the possibility of reduced staffing levels.
“You have to remember this police commission isn’t here to speak to this. That’s a significant change to their budget. You might want to hear from the police commission, who will have to operate under that new budget, so you can understand what the real impact is. You might want to hear from them before making a significant change. They’d probably have to re-think how they operate that department.”
Mayor DeVlieger was unswayed by this argument, suggesting the matter be put to a motion and vote.
“I understand that. I’ve asked questions, and I’ve come to the conclusion that’s what I’d like to see.”
According to the budget narrative document, police and CUPE wages account for the bulk of the 3.93 per cent increase in 2016. However, this number is currently an estimate as upcoming contract negotiations between the Town of Taber and the Taber Police Association have yet to be finalized, and could potentially register an enhanced fiscal impact in 2016 over the increase currently estimated.
Council’s decision could also be viewed as an indirect attempt at hard bargaining, as reducing the police budget could force the Taber Police Association to weigh their options in either accepting an across the board zero per cent increase in 2016 contract negotiations, or reducing present staff levels to incorporate an increase for remaining staff members.
Other members of town council were also onside with the mayor’s suggestion that the commission’s budget be reduced for 2016.
“I agree. We’re getting pretty high up in our budget, and to explain that to our public and taxpayers, it’s pretty hard to justify,” said Coun. Jack Brewin. “We’re looking at cutting, and that’s one of the spots I believe we could cut.”
Management changes coming at the police service — largely due to the retirement of Chief Alf Rudd early in the new year — could represent a cost savings in 2016 and must be factored into the discussion, according to Coun. Joe Strojwas.
“I have to agree. I understand there’s some management changes there. There should be a reduction — a large reduction. On that basis, I would support a reduction there as well.”
Coun. Randy Sparks — who also serves as one of two town council representatives on the Taber Municipal Police Commission, along with Coun. Andrew Prokop — warned council about intensive discussion of the specifics of the commission’s budget in open session which could represent a violation of the Police Act, intended to limit undue interference by municipal government in the internal affairs of law enforcement.
“We have to be really careful here, because we’re talking police commission. Just because there’s going to be some changes in the upper end of it, that has nothing to do with us. It’s the police commission’s business to worry about that. If council wishes to tell the police commission to cut their budget that’s fine, but we can’t sit here and subject, or talk about, or make comments about something that we know nothing about. The only thing you can say is you have to cut your budget by so much. If that’s what you want that’s fine, but please be very careful how you discuss police commission workings in this context.”
Due to specifics surrounding how the municipality qualifies for a $100,000 provincial funding grant for an extra police officer, if the police service were to drop one officer, it would actually mean two officers would be cut, according to CAO Birch.
“I don’t know if you all understand, but we get special funding for the number of police officers we have. If we eliminate one, we eliminate two. That’s the kind of information I think you should think about before making a decision.”