Niagara Police Board trims budget; Regional Council approve 7.02% operating budget increase for 2024
A modest 1.1 percent reduction in the proposed increase to the 2024 Niagara Police budget was enough for Regional Council to approve the total operating cost for regional government next year.
The Operating Budget, which funds the daily business of Niagara Region, its boards and agencies, will see a 7.02 percent increase in 2024 which equates to approximately $484 million for the operating levy, up from $444.4 million in the 2023 budget, which saw a 9.43 percent increase approved early this year.
The eventual 7.02 percent increase was less than original estimates by regional staff which had proposed a nine percent increase due to high inflation, development charge exemptions imposed under Bill 23 and 2024 having two extra work days that needed to be accommodated.
Going into Thursday’s budget meeting, staff was looking at a possible 7.4 percent operating budget increase based on concerns raised by council members who sent back the police budget and asked for other belt-tightening measures.
In October, the Police Board had approved a 7.1 percent increase to the service’s 2024 budget, amounting to a net budget expenditure of approximately $190.5 million. Included in the proposed budget was the hiring of an additional forty staff, including 20 frontline officers.
The proposed increase, which would have a 2.8 percent impact on the Region’s general levy, was too rich for Regional Council when they met on November 23. Regional Chair Jim Bradley questioned some of the proposed new positions characterizing them as “more nice to haves, than essentially needed”.
On Monday, at a special meeting, the Police Board unanimously approved a report offering various mitigation measures that resulted in approximately $2 million in cuts to the Police Service’s proposed 2024 budget, trimming the budget increase from 7.1 percent to 6 percent, the majority of which came from the deferral of various staffing positions.
Of what was trimmed, $830,327 can be best described as the reallocation or recharacterization of certain expenditures. For example, the Region suggested a budgeted fuel rate for 2024 of $1.65 per litre. By reducing the fuel rate to $1.51 per litre, there are “savings” to the budget of $180,327 or 0.1 percent. With two extra work days in the next calendar year having to be accommodated in the budget, funding Leap Day will now come from the Police Contingency Reserve, the account used for “one-time” costs, though the use comes with a caution that the contingency fund will be depleted by 34 percent by using it for the $500,000 associated with the extra salary day on February 29th. Finally, $150,000 was removed from the civilian replacement budget, which provides relief support to civilian positions within the operation, justified due to “hiring lags” in 2023.
The majority, and the balance, of the proposed mitigating measures were related to new hires for 2024. The original budget request had $4 million in “service enhancements, stabilization, and growth”, which meant the 40 additional staff. The ask equated to 2.3 percent of the proposed 7.1 percent budget increase. Had the increases been approved at the Regional level it would have meant an 11 percent increase in staffing of the Police Service since 2019.
Tasked with coming up with cuts, the related staff report indicated that a Program Change Evaluation Tool was used to assess the impact based on four criteria: risk, service delivery/operation impact, community well-being and continuous improvement. With risk accounting for 45 percent of the evaluation criteria, all of the 40 proposed positions were analyzed with “safety to members and the public, regulatory compliance, member wellness and service reputation as the determining factors”. In addition, the Service investigated possible shared service opportunities with the Region but came up with none.
What was offered up at the Special Meeting were six positions that would reduce the budget impact from anywhere between approximately $96 thousand to $239 thousand, depending on the position. All of the proposed positions, an Inspector Investigative Support position, an IT Equipment Support Technician, a Visual Content Creator, a Digital Evidence Management System Clerk, an Enterprise Project Coordinator and a Crime Analysis Supervisor, will be deferred and up for budget consideration in 2025.
The original 2024 budget submission was also proposing 20 frontline officers, despite the fact that 40 new constables were added to the service in 2020, after the completion of a frontline workload study entitled Managing Patrol Performance (MPP). At the Police Services Board Finance Committee meeting in October, Chief Bryan MacCullough admitted that the 2020 staffing infusion did not realize the desired benefits, especially in the larger districts, with officers often being deployed to smaller jurisdictions to meet minimum staffing levels set out in collective agreements. Despite the lack of realized benefits in 2020, Monday’s staff report still recommended the 20 frontline officers, however, staggering the hiring of half of the complement until September 2024 which reduced the operating budget by $381,625 or 0.3 percent.
While the 2024 budget ask for Niagara Police was reduced, projections show large increases in the years ahead.
When presenting the budget in October, Chief MacCullough justified the need for enhancements based on the complexity of policing, technological pressures, enhancing operational effectiveness and the increased demand in service. On Monday, his message was more dire. “[F]ive years ago we didn’t have the shooting incidents and violent crimes, occurring now on a regular basis.”
However, the Service's own statistics show that there were almost the same number of criminal code violations and violent crimes in Niagara in 2021 and 2022, with a slight increase in property crimes and a decrease in armed/barricaded persons.
Chief Bryan MacCullough justified the budget increase as necessary to deal with the increasing complexity of crime in Niagara.
Nonetheless, the Police are increasingly attending calls for service related to opioids, homelessness and mental health incidents. Chief MacCullough stated that the Police will often have to attend a suspected overdose due to safety concerns of attending paramedics, anecdotally noting six such calls for service over six hours this past Sunday in NIagara Falls.
While some Board Members expressed misgivings about the impact of continued budget cuts in future years, only one change was ultimately made to staff’s suggested mitigation measures. Board Member Bill Steele moved a motion returning the Crime Analysis Supervisor position to the budget, but with a July implementation date, halving the impact to approximately $83 thousand in 2024. Steele’s justification was that the position, which would bolster training in “enhanced crime prevention and identity resource gaps within existing crime analyst positions”, had been recommended by the RCMP in a 2019 commissioned report.
As a result, the budget submitted to Regional Council on Thursday proposed a net expenditure budget decreased from $190,475,582.00, or 7.1 percent, to $188,475,328.00, or a 6 percent increase. The amended budget resulted in a 2.4 percent impact on the Region’s consolidated levy, a reduction of 0.4 percent from the Service’s original budget submission.The NRPS Board’s willingness to consider cuts stands in contrast to their counterparts at the Niagara Transit Commission (NTC).
Regional Council had sent the Transit budget back to the NTC for reconsideration. While Transit Staff had suggested mitigation options that would have reduced the budget increase from 7.8 percent to 6.3 percent, the NTC rejected any changes sending a correspondence to the Regional Chair and Council confirming their original budget submission. At last week’s Budget Committee of the Whole meeting a number of Councillors seemed miffed by the Commission’s refusal to consider cuts, resulting in a motion to refer the budget back to NTC, a second time.
A Special Meeting of the NTC is scheduled for Tuesday, December 11th. Should the Commission again reject coming forward with any reductions, Regional Council will then be able to determine a dollar or percentage reduction at its December 14th meeting. The Transit budget is a stand-alone special levy budget, separate from the Region’s operating budget.
Thursday night, the majority of Regional Council members saw the NRPS cuts as sufficient despite the results of the Region’s public budget consultation process, which did not get underway until November 13th, well into Council’s budget deliberations.
The public consultation consisted of an on-line survey, completed by 980 residents, and five qualitative focus groups, four consisting of residents and one comprising local business leaders. In an accompanying memo from the Region’s Chief Administrative Officer, Ron Tripp noted that “the research focused on program and service areas of the Region where there is some capacity for discretionary spending…the results of this research are intended to provide some insights into these specific areas where Council may wish to either increase or decrease budget allocations.” Had Regional Council taken the CAO’s comments into account it may not have boded well for the approval of the reduced, six percent increase to the proposed Police budget.
Pollara Strategic Insights, the consulting firm engaged by the Region for the budget consultation process, characterized Police funding as a “low priority area” based on 51 percent of respondents replying that funding should be cut. Thirty percent of respondents felt that funding should be maintained but only at the rate of the cost of living, while only 15 percent were in favour of a tax increase, associated with the Police budget.
The qualitative findings of the survey indicated that people understand the importance of Niagara Regional Police Services but do not feel the Service needs “more funding than it already has”. From the related report by the consultants:
“[A]dditionally, many would like to see this funding redistributed into areas that could better increase public safety. The most often given example is the use of mental health professionals, rather than police, to deal with those in crisis.”
The NRPS has had a partnership with the Niagara branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) since 2015. The Mobile Crisis Rapid Response Team (MCRRT) program pairs a mental health and addictions professional with a specially-trained, uniformed officer to respond to 911 mental health calls. The NRPS 2022 Annual Report indicates that the partnership responded to almost 1900 calls last year, diverting 78 percent of individuals from hospital.
Despite the successes of the program, Chief MacCullough, speaking at the October Finance Committee meeting, was doubtful that Police services could ever be completely eliminated from mental health calls:
“It’s not that we’re just responding to mental health crises, 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.”
At Monday’s NRPS meeting, Board Chair Jen Lawson summarized the dilemma: “W(e) do not want more Police Officers but until we have better mental health, housing, and addictions strategies from the Province, we need more Police.”
The majority of Regional Council felt the same way, with Niagara Falls Regional Councillor Joyce Morocco even musing at Thursday’s meeting that she would have been prepared to return the six deferred positions back into the NRPS budget.
Regional Chair Jim Bradley, who on November 23rd had even broached the possibility of the Region formally rejecting the Police budget, which could have triggered an appeal to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) by the Police Board, was laudatory of the 1.1 percent budget decrease and set the tone for Regional Council’s approval, while alluding to the obstinance of the Transit Commission:
“[I] would like to thank the (NRPS Board) members who made challenging and difficult decisions and did not ignore the comments and apprehensions of Council. They have got the budget to a point where I think it should be approved.”
Niagara-on-the-Lake Regional Councillor Andrea Kaiser was one of the few dissenting voices, indicating that she was “looking for a little more” of a budget cut but ultimately in a 22-4 vote, Regional Council approved the 6 percent increase to the NRPS budget.
With the Police budget increase decided, Council turned to the task of finalizing the operating budget. A number of amendments were proposed but mostly failed. Two mitigation measures offered by Staff were ultimately returned to the budget: a fund that provides funerals for approximately 250 low-income, deceased individuals annually and some economic development funding available to Local Area Municipalities for promoting “shop local” initiatives.
At around 11:15 p.m. the 2024 operating budget was finally put to bed, passing with a 24-4 vote. The related by-law will be presented on December 14th for formal approval.
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