By Trevor Busch
Mandated due to an eleventh hour budget cut by town council last week, the Taber Municipal Police Commission held an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss options facing the police service, which could include a significant reduction in staffing levels.
At their Dec. 7 special budget meeting, town council had 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.
“As I’ve stated previously in the media, and to some of you, it was quite a shock to me, and I think to some of us,” said TMPC chair Ken Holst on Dec. 10. “To be honest, it felt pretty personal — right or wrong — I took it pretty personally. I feel that the job this commission has done in the past, and continues to do, in all regards of our duties, the fact that we know and understand that we’re a legislated body, the due diligence that we continue to do on a regular basis year after year on our budget — that this commission does an excellent job.”
Indicating he had been “hurt” by council’s decision, Holst went so far as to suggest the motion was a vote of non-confidence in himself as chair and that of the police commission.
“A lot of work went into that, and making sure that we presented a budget that was sensitive to the needs of the service and the needs of this town, for its policing needs, as well as the needs of our citizens in being fiscally responsible. It was because of that, I was hurt by it and took it fairly personal as a non-confidence vote towards myself as chair and us as a commission.”
Tabled for discussion as a budget narrative at council’s Nov. 23 meeting, the Taber Municipal Police Commission’s 2016 budget was seeking an overall 3.93 per cent increase.
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 from 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.
Holst presented three separate budget scenarios that could be considered by the commission to deal with the budget cut, firstly involving a reduction in staffing levels.
“In doing so, that takes us below the required government funding for the ALERT program, and we would lose that funding. So it would require a reduction of two officers. As I’ve thought about that and worked out those numbers, this option does not seem feasible, simply because a $150,000 cut or decrease from our expenses will cause us, on the revenue side, to lose $100,000 in grant monies from the ALERT program. Operationally, we would not be able to continue with the school resource officer program, as we would need that body to be operational on the streets.”
Reductions in staffing would involve impacts to various revenue streams that need to be taken into consideration, added Holst.
“That’s a $40,000 revenue from Horizon School Division. I would estimate that overtime would increase with two less officers, a minimum of $10,000. With two less officers, our fine revenues would decrease by at least $30,000. For $30,000 more in terms of cost to the town, because of loss of revenue of $180,000, it would cost us $30,000 to reduce by two members. Obviously that option would be available to us if we have this $150,000 cut, but it wouldn’t be one that was very economically intelligent to pay more to have less.”
A second option would involve potential efficiencies that might be identified due to management changes at the Taber Police Service with the retirement of Chief Alf Rudd in early 2016.
“Another option, and one that I think has been rumoured around town, is if we had to replace any positions within our chief or inspector roles, that could be replaced with a constable position,” said Holst. “We have looked at those numbers in that situation there as well, and because of the cost of training a constable — whether it’s a fifth year, a new constable that requires all training, or some that could come in as a third class, or first class, still requires some training — that first year cost we estimate would be at least $30,000 as well, to replace those positions with a constable position. Again economically, to pay $30,000 for something less, not to mention the impact operationally there would be to the service, doesn’t seem to be financially intelligent.”
The third option, which would see fine revenues fully fund the shortfall, was considered to be dangerous from a budgetary perspective.
“The only other option would be using all fine revenues. This option is probably the one that would be the least impacting initially to the service, and the service that is provided to this town. But it comes with a huge risk, and a huge caution I think from myself, and potentially from the commission, and that would be using 100 per cent of the fine revenue that is generated when it is not a guaranteed amount, is very dangerous. Potentially, it’s a slippery slope when you are preparing budgets, to go down. I wouldn’t purchase a house on the risk that I win the lottery,” said Holst.
Approximately $150,000 might be available as surplus fine revenue in 2015, but this number is no guarantee.
“I would present this idea with a heavy caution, simply because using un-guaranteed funds for budgeting purposes is dangerous, and one that would definitely have that asterisk beside it,” said Holst. “In an effort for council to reduce overall budget, it would not accomplish that at all. This $150,000 surplus goes into town funds, and becomes a shell game.”
Commission member Murray Gardner preferred to see option three utilized by the commission as the least impactful to present staffing levels.
“Option three, even though it would have to come with a strong caution, I think would have the least amount of impact on the service, and on our budget per se initially. My thoughts are that we should maintain the inspector position and try to hire someone at a slightly lower wage. I think it’s a very beneficial position to act as a buffer between the chief and the constables. I think we need to maintain the current complement of manpower that we have, including the school resource officer. It doesn’t take too many trips into the schools to realize it’s a need and a very valuable position to have.”
Holst also requested a meeting between the commission and town council to explain their varying positions. An in-camera meeting was held on Monday evening in council chambers.
“When this budget was presented to council, there was zero questions asked on what we presented. There appeared to be no desire to understand anything further, and I feel that if we can help council understand what options we’re really left with, and how some of those become not financially intelligent decisions, and the impact of this cut — they might potentially reconsider. But we also do need to have a plan as well if that is not accepted.”
Gardner suggested the decision might have been “rushed through” by council, and a sober second look might pay handsome dividends for the commission and police service.
“Just from reading what’s been provided to us — I wasn’t at the meeting — but it seems like the decision was, you might even say, rushed through without everyone being aware of the ripple effects that can take place by just saying let’s cut $150,000. I think it’s important they understand it’s not just cutting $150,000, we need to be able to track that back, and it’ll create this issue, this issue, and this issue. Once they have all the information presented to them, then it’s up to them to make a decision, and not just a random figure, or what they assume is just $150,000 and that’s it.”
Displaying a measure of confidence in his ability to convince council of the irresponsibility of their decision and reverse course, Holst cited figures to back his position.
“I’d like to assume that anyone, if understood that it was going to cost, for example $180,000 to save $150,000, would change their mind.”
Coun. Randy Sparks, who also serves as one of two council representatives on the police commission, supported the opportunity for the commission to meet with council and state their position.
“This commission needs to have the opportunity to talk to council, give them the numbers that our chairman has presented tonight, so council has the facts and figures before them, so either they say ‘Sorry boys, find that $150,000’ or rescind the motion. With these numbers here, I can’t see why anyone would force the issue, but I can’t make that decision for anyone else.”
Commission member Harry Prummel took a more pragmatic approach to the situation, indicating that while council’s decision might not be welcomed by the commission, at the end of the day, “business is business.”
“I know chair Holst took it personally, but at the end of the day, it’s business. It’s getting to a point where we can work with the budget, that’s what this is all about.”
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.