A report warns of “unacceptable service reductions” in policing if Saanich council insists on limiting property tax hikes to 3.5 per cent. But police officials also clearly heard that they too will have to do their part as Saanich seeks to limit tax hikes.
“There are no sacred activities when you are looking for difficult cuts,” said Coun. Colin Plant, as council discussed the police budget last week.
Plant made these comments after the police board had submitted its provisional budget. The submitted document calls for an increase of 4.63 per cent (or $ 1.496 million) and warns against limiting the increase to 3.5 per cent, as per a council direction dating back to 2016, because of changing policing needs that require six additional staff. They include among others new officers to help with mental health cases and Internet child exploitation investigations.
“Limiting the [police board] to a 3.5 [per cent] increase would result in deferring all new positions and laying off three existing positions, and would result in unacceptable service reductions,” the report reads.
Saanich Police Chief Bob Downie acknowledged that Saanich faces public pressure to limit future tax increases, and Hallsor said that the police board would go back to the drawing board if council were to stick with the figure of 3.5 per cent. In fact, it might hire the new staff anyway by eliminating staff in other areas, he said.
Potential areas of cuts include the elimination of Saanich’s bike patrol, officers that work with at-risk youth, and traffic safety, as per the report.
Saanich, according to the report, has the second highest ratio of population-per-officer, and Hallsor said Saanich Police has already proven itself in managing budgets.
While councillors acknowledged these points, they voted 6-2 with Mayor Richard Atwell and Coun. Leif Wergeland opposed to send the provisional police budget back to the police board for review and revisions.
Plant, who was perhaps the most prominent speaker on this subject, said the request of the police board did not comply with the direction from council.
“When we said 3.5 [per cent], we meant it,” he said. “If that means the service is going to change, tell us how it is going to change.”
It is important to remember that Saanich Police will still get an increase of 3.5 per cent in its budget. It’s not a reduction in the police budget, but rather a lift, he said in stressing that this direction from council was not unfriendly.
Coun. Susan Brice predicted that this issue will cause some serious discussion, a point Coun. Leif Wergeland echoed when he said that Saanich cannot have it all.
He also noted that the figure of 3.5 per cent is a political figure. “I believe it is 3.5 per cent because it is more palatable for our electorate,” said Wergeland.
Atwell acknowledged the various arguments in favour of cutting the proposed increase, but justified his opposition by virtue of also being the chair of the police board. Atwell said it would be awkward for him to vote for one figure as mayor, then turn around and support another as chair of the police board.
“I have to stand on one side of the process,” he said.
Saanich has one of the lowest crime rates in the country, as measured by the Crime Severity Index, a Statistics Canada measure of all police-reported crime, which takes into consideration both the volume and seriousness of offences.
The current national CSI is 70 out of 100. This means crime severity is down 30 basis points since 2006, when Statistics Canada set its benchmark. Saanich’s is 40.
Saanich with a population of 117,285 (as listed in the report) ranks 181 out of 229 surveyed communities. Neighbouring Victoria with a population of 104,777 ranks 30th, while Oak Bay with a population of 19,266 ranks 212th.