BRANDON -- It is an annual budget problem that leaves Brandon's mayor and council with two choices -- one bad, the other worse. They can impose large property tax increases in order to offset the rapidly rising cost of providing police services, or they can lessen the blow by limiting spending in other priority areas such as infrastructure renewal, economic development, downtown revitalization and affordable housing.
The first option harms Brandon's competitiveness, while exacerbating the tax burden borne by those living on low and fixed incomes. The second option defers necessary expenditures into the future, when they will inevitably come with a higher price tag.
Neither choice addresses the source of the problem, which is the escalating cost of operating a police department. It is a challenge facing Winnipeg and many other municipal governments, and Brandon has been among the hardest-hit communities in the nation.
In the past eight years, salaries for the city's police officers have risen by almost 46 per cent. Base pay for a first class constable in the Brandon Police Service now stands at $84,427 -- very close to what first class constables are paid in Vancouver ($85,716) and Toronto ($86,366) -- and despite the fact Brandon has neither the intensity of criminal activity nor the cost of living of either of those cities.
The explosion in police salaries has had a predictable impact on Brandon's operating budget. From 2011 to 2013 alone, budgeted policing costs have increased from $11.6 million to $14 million. That's a 19.9 per cent increase in just two years, and the city's draft 2014 budget calls for yet another hike.
While numerous communities throughout the nation are struggling with the same issue, it appears that the struggle is far more onerous for some than others.
With a population of 46,061 (according to the 2011 census), Brandon paid approximately $302 per citizen for its policing this year. That is far higher than Red Deer, Alta., (population: 97,109), which paid $21 million or $217.40 per citizen. Kelowna, B.C., (population: 117,312) paid $20 million or just $171.29 per citizen. Grande Prairie, Alta., Kamloops, B.C. and the Greater Moncton (N.B.) Area also paid substantially less per citizen than Brandon.
How have those communities avoided the costly increases Brandon is experiencing? How can Kelowna, with a population almost three times that of Brandon, have a policing budget that is just $6 million higher?
The answers to both questions lie in the fact none of those communities has municipal police forces. In each case, local policing is provided by the RCMP, at a substantially lower cost to taxpayers.
The RCMP provides police services under contract to municipalities in each of the provinces other than Ontario and Quebec (which have their own provincial police forces). Under those contracts, the federal government shares the cost of the service provided by the RCMP. For municipalities with a population over 15,000, jurisdictions pay 90 per cent and the federal government pays 10 per cent.
Communities do not have to meet special criteria for RCMP policing. Indeed, "the federal government is willing to consider requests for new municipal policing agreements," says Josée Picard, spokeswoman for the federal Public Safety department.
In other words, Brandon's city council has the option of switching to the RCMP for policing. If they could negotiate the same "per citizen" cost as Kelowna, it would reduce policing costs by more than $6 million -- enough money for targeted expenditures in other areas and a small tax cut.
The union representing Brandon's police officers has already signalled that it would fight such a move. "The RCMP is currently an agency with its difficulties," says Brandon Police Association president Kevin Loewen. "In fact, there are often times where the low staffing levels create response times that would shock a Brandon resident calling during an emergency.
"The Brandon Police Service provides a Cadillac service to the city both in response times and specialized sections available at a moment's notice."
That may or may not be true, but the issue is whether Brandonites can afford to continue paying Cadillac costs when a substantially more affordable option may be available.
That is a question for Brandon's mayor and council to decide. Whether they have the courage to do so remains to be seen.
Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.