By Trevor Busch
Despite pressure to back down from implementing a $150,000 cut to the Taber Police Service in their 2016 budget, town council has upheld that motion following a split decision last week.
At their Dec. 21 meeting, council voted 5-2 against rescinding its Dec. 7 motion to reduce the Taber Municipal Police Commission’s (Taber Police Service) 2016 total budget by $150,000. Coun.(s) Randy Sparks and Laura Ross-Giroux voted in opposition to the motion.
“I believe that if there is any reduction in the police budget, we put the safety of our residents at risk, by even this reduction — I honestly believe that,” said Sparks. “I support the police commission. I know the chair and the police chief put a lot of time and effort into this budget, to come up with a budget that was very fiscally responsible. The only increase to this budget was in wages and benefits, and we have an obligation as a town and as a commission, to ensure that these officers get paid their wages, because this was a contracted settlement, and we have a responsibility for that.”
A large contingent of police commissioners, officers and others offering support — including a sizable group of children — filled the chamber gallery on Dec. 21 to hear council’s decision. In the wake of the Dec. 7 decision, police and commission officials had warned the cut might result in a significant reduction in staff levels for the service.
“I appreciate the police commission being here, I appreciate the officers from our police service being here, because I believe we’re very fortunate to have the commission chair we have, the police chief that we have, and the officers that we have that serve the town of Taber,” continued Sparks. “Our future is these young people in the back that have come here tonight, and I believe that they’re here for this reason. They’re here because we have a responsibility as a council, as a police commission, to ensure the safety of these young people, to ensure the safety of every resident of the town of Taber. If we make a reduction in the police budget, we put that at risk, because we will not be able to supply the service that our police service gives us at this time. We’re fortunate within the town to be able to go to bed at night and believe that we’re able to get up in the morning without any serious things happening to us, because we’re being looked after.”
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 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.
“Let me make it absolutely clear that I am proud of our police force and all the work they are doing,” said Mayor Henk DeVlieger, speaking at the Dec. 21 meeting. “It has never been my intention to reduce manpower of the police service. I don’t think that is what this budget discussion is about. At the moment we live in some economically challenging times, which most likely will not change tomorrow. Nobody has a crystal ball about tomorrow, but we live now and have to deal with the reality of today. These times and other issues affect our complete 2016 town budget, and the police budget is not an exception as far as I’m concerned.”
DeVlieger attacked insinuations that the mandated cut would require the elimination of the school resource officer position, which is partially funded by Horizon School Division.
“I was a little disappointed by some of the foredrawn conclusions made in the media by some of our local groups that, quote ‘it is likely that the student resource officer position will be terminated’. This was compounded by TCAPS through their Facebook page. I find it low and cheap to use our youth as a bargaining tool. Just speaking for myself, this position is very important to me, and covers a large number of our young people’s population, from the town and the M.D. of Taber.”
In describing the original police commission budget narrative presented to council on Nov. 23, DeVlieger pointed out staffing levels remain the same as in 2015, but payroll including benefits were proposed to increase by $114,000, or 4.5 per cent.
“No matter what the explanation of justification is for this increase, I can not justify a 4.5 per cent payroll increase to our taxpayers, especially in times where some people are taking hefty pay cuts and or are losing jobs.”
DeVlieger went on to note that according to his own analysis of publicly-available information, over the last decade TPS officers have received a total wage increase of 47 per cent.
“How can we keep affording a police force our size if this trend continues?”
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.
While not prohibiting a comparative analysis, a disclaimer to the report does note “these rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, or region” and users are “cautioned against comparing law enforcement workload or financial pressures across individual municipalities solely on the basis of this statistical data”.
“I realize that this report has to be used with caution as mentioned in the report, and by the commission, but it paints a picture of 50 municipal comparisons, and also a three year average,” said DeVlieger. “As far as the financial cost comparisons we are very high at the top, and police per 1,000 population is 24 per cent above average. The crime per officer is 65 per cent below average.”
To support his arrival at a $150,000 budget cut, DeVlieger also cited upcoming management changes at the police service as an opportunity for efficiencies, an increase of $50,000 to estimated fine revenues based on income data and trends, efficiencies through improved technologies, as well as a potential savings of $25,000 identified by administration with regard to wage rates for communications operators.
“I know there are some on council that maybe don’t believe the numbers they’ve been given by the police commission, but these are the numbers, and it’s a fact,” said Sparks. “We need our police service in this town. We don’t need any cuts to the police service, we don’t need any cuts to staffing. Let’s leave the budget how it originally was and carry on, and know that we’re going to be safe each and every day.”