Struggling Niagara taxpayers asked to cover 7.1% increase for region’s police force
The Niagara Regional Police Service’s proposed 2024 financial blueprint will be forwarded to Regional Council but whether this year’s budget will be readily accepted and approved remains to be seen, with one Police Services Board Member raising concerns over how the hefty proposed increase may be received.
On Thursday, October 12, the Police Services Board’s Financial Committee received a report and presentation from Chief of Police Bryan MacCulloch, calling for a 7.1 percent increase to the service’s 2024 budget, amounting to a total of approximately $190.5 million, including the proposed hike. The total approved 2023 police budget was $177.86 million.
The 2024 budget will be the last for Niagara Regional Police Chief Bryan MacCulloch who is set to retire in February.
Board Member and Regional Councillor Bill Steele indicated he had been at the Region the previous day and had “already been questioned about what’s going on with the Police budget.”
The proposed budget represents the largest increase request from the NRPS to Regional Council in recent memory. In 2019, a 6 percent increase to the Service’s budget was approved, while in 2016, the Board asked for no budget increase.
Although the Police budget tends to generate much discussion at Regional Council, the amounts have been approved, as requested, in recent years.
In July, the Regional Council’s Budget Review Committee of the Whole approved a staff recommendation that agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs) under the Region’s purview target a 4.7 percent budget increase, a figure that reflected the hyper-inflation environment across Ontario, and most of the country.
The proposed NRPS budget includes what is termed an inflationary adjustment of 4.8 percent from the 2023 approved budget. Chief MacCullough characterized this portion of the budget as a restatement of the 2023 operating budget in 2024 dollars (accounting for yearly inflation, two additional budget days in 2024, wage settlements and some capital asset financing).
The 2.3 percent on top of that figure for the proposed 2024 budget, which equals almost $4 million, is for “service enhancements, stabilization, and growth” and if approved will mean 40 additional staff, including 20 frontline constables.
Not surprisingly, much of the Finance Committee’s discussion centred on the additional 20 constables. Steele expressed surprise over the inclusion of that many new frontline staff: “The additional 20 officers, I don’t remember discussing that, at any meeting. Did I miss something? Was this actually brought before us or discussed before today?”
Chief MacCullough responded that the request should not have come as a surprise to Board members and while there had not been a specific Board report on the need for the additional staffing, many of the external pressures facing the service had been part of ongoing Board discussions. Despite his explanation, it’s unusual for a Police Services Board, which governs the force and is responsible for protecting the public purse, to be in the dark about such a significant hiring increase, prior to the chief announcing it through a budget request.
The most recent large staffing increase for the NRPS occurred in 2020 when 40 new constables were recommended after the completion of a frontline workload study entitled Managing Patrol Performance (MPP). The intent was for the 40 officers to be deployed to the service’s three largest districts.
Chief MacCullough, however, admitted the service had not realized the benefits of the 2022 infusion of new staff, especially in the larger districts, with officers often being deployed to smaller jurisdictions to meet minimum staffing levels set out in collective agreements.
In addition, provincial legislative changes increased “unavailable hours” and protected leave hours of staff. The parental sharing benefit introduced in 2019 has led to a 187 percent increase in maternity and paternity leave hours taken by staff, from that time to 2022, while a WSIB amendment, which added Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as an eligible workplace injury for first responders, increased non-deployable hours by 110 percent in 2022 over 2019.
Chief MacCullough stressed the parental leave and WSIB impacts were not isolated to just the NRPS but to police services, and all employers, throughout Ontario. He also felt the service has made strides with the hiring of disability management and accommodation specialists to get people back to work quicker and reduce the future impact of sick leave.
This year another MPP study was completed, which found significant changes since 2019 and still a need for more officers.
Chief MacCullough justified the need for enhancements based on the complexity of policing, technological pressures, enhancing operational effectiveness and the increased demand in service.
A slide presented at the Finance Committee did depict a large increase in demand from 2020 to 2021, undoubtedly influenced by the pandemic conditions, yet policing statistics for 2021 and 2022 are relatively static. There were almost the same number of violent crimes in Niagara in 2021 and 2022, a slight increase in property crimes and a decrease in armed/barricaded persons. A more substantial increase has been in mental health calls.
Niagara police statistics remained relatively static between 2021 and 2022.
When asked if the new staffing would alleviate some of the numbers going forward, Chief MacCullough was optimistic that officers would be able to react more proactively to assist, especially in the area of property crimes, however, he cautioned that it would be difficult to proactively deal with violent crimes. He was also resigned to the fact that police will increasingly be called upon to deal with mental health issues, a growing reality across Canada. Some larger forces in the country are trying to alleviate this growing burden on police resources by partnering with agencies and public organizations that specialize in responding to residents suffering a mental health crisis. However, the big question remains: Who will pay for this growing need?
“It’s not that we’re just responding to mental health crises,” Chief MacCullough explained, “there could be addiction issues, criminality and threats of violence. Other agencies could respond to those calls but the problem is those agencies don’t exist and don’t exist 24/7 to handle these issues. We have become the agency of first resort, and last resort to these calls.”
A question raised by more than one of the Board members present at the Finance Committee was whether the 40 new hires had to come in 2024 or if half could be allocated in 2025.
The Chief pushed back indicating that a lot of what was contained in the budget were program deferrals from the previous year, that there would be no guarantees the Board or Regional Council would approve the enhancements in 2025 and that the service would still be faced with jockeying to meet minimum staffing requirements, without the additional complement.
If the 2024 NRPS budget is approved, the service will have a total of 1149 staff members, an 11 percent increase since 2019, when there were 1032 employees.
While the Board members were complementary of the thoroughness of the presentation, members that sit on Regional Council did recommend that data be included to compare the NRPS to other comparable police services.
In a report dated September 1, 2023, in response to a motion by the Regional Council, the NRPS did a comparison with Halton, Waterloo, Durham, Peel and York police services.
Not surprisingly, the results of the comparison are a mixed bag.
While the NRPS serves a smaller population base than the average of its comparators, it has more municipalities and greater square kilometers to cover. Niagara is below the median with regard to staffing, even if the 2024 numbers are added, but has a higher number of officers per 100,000 residents. The budget increase in the last two years was below the aggregate average of the other services surveyed.
At the end, the Finance Committee only made one minor amendment to the budget presented, to increase its annual contribution to Victim Services Niagara (VSN) by $25,000, bringing the total annual contribution from the NRPS to VSN from $50,000 to $75,000.
It was indicated that the NRPS also provides comparable, annual support to Crime Stoppers Niagara, Niagara Children's Safety Village, and the Kristen French Child Advocacy Centre Niagara. Despite the largesse, Steele recommended the Board administration consider developing a funding model that would establish a formal policy going forward for such contributions.
With the formal approval by the Board, the 2024 budget request will now be submitted for Regional Council’s consideration, the final hurdle. An educational budget workshop for Regional Councillors on agencies, boards and commissions, including Niagara’s police force, is scheduled for Thursday, October 26, while a decision on the budget is expected Thursday, November 23.
The 2024 NRPS budget marks the final one Chief Bryan MacCullough will bring forward, as he is set to retire effective February 1, 2024.
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