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Editorial: We need a better way of paying for police

Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto argued that council lacks expertise to assess police services.
Disagreements over funding between a city council and the police department in B.C. can be appealed by the police to the Ministry of Public Safety's Director of Police Services. Often, the decisions favour the police board, says Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto. TIMES COLONIST

Victoria city council is at sixes and sevens as to how its budget for the year ahead should be set. There are two areas of confusion.

First, the city is planning on a 6.3 per cent tax increase, supposedly the rate of inflation.

But in fact, that looks like an over-reach. Victoria’s inflation rate in February was 6.0 per cent, and for the year as a whole, most forecasters are projecting somewhere in the five per cent range.

That’s not a small matter. On a budget of nearly $300 million, applying the lower inflation number would reduce taxes by around $4 million. That’s money hard-pressed residents should be allowed to keep.

Could it be that council is comfortable with a revenue grab now, knowing the next municipal elections are nearly four years away?

The larger issue, however, is how to deal with the police budget. Council was presented with a spending package $1.7 million above its target figure.

That raised the question of where to make the needed cuts, and more important, how to make those cuts stick with a police department that reports to an independent board.

Council ransacked the police budget and came up with the necessary savings.

But Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto called this process “a charade,” arguing that council lacks the necessary expertise to assess police services.

This is an astonishing admission. Around 240 city staffers make $75,000 a year or more, including 40 or so who take home six figures.

How can it be that such a well-paid staffing team cannot get its head around the police budget?

But that’s not really the problem. By an arrangement that makes no sense, the city’s police department reports independently to a board supervised by the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety.

Most of the board members are appointed by the province.

If a disagreement over funding arises between city council and the police department, the board can appeal to the ministry’s director of police services.

This actually happened with the Vancouver 2022 police budget, when the director of police services forced the city to reinstate $5.7 million that councillors had cut.

That has also repeatedly been the experience in Victoria. As Alto told reporters, any appeal by the police board to the ministry “very often goes in favour of the police board.”

So in effect, city council can be forced to accept law enforcement budgets over which it has no ultimate control. Yet the political heat for the resulting tax increase falls not on the ministry, where it belongs, but on council. That is unfair.

Two solutions exist. The province could stop interfering in council business, and leave municipalities with police departments to make their own decisions.

The province has resisted this option, believing perhaps that city councils cannot be trusted to maintain law enforcement services at the required level. That was the case in Vancouver, when the police budget had been trimmed by the city to levels the province considered inadequate.

However, if this remains a concern, then let the province take the other option and put police budgets on its own books, and deal with the financial and political consequences.

The ministry has to some extent acknowledged the problem. A review of the Police Act has been carried out, and some initial reforms are anticipated this fall. Where they will lead, however, is not yet known.

Nevertheless, such a one-sided arrangement should not continue.

One of the tests of good government is that the officials responsible for spending should be the same officials responsible for taxing.

As things stand, the management of police budgets does not meet that test.

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