There are a few things taxpayers should know when assessing the city’s decision to cap police spending at two per cent a year.
To say the Winnipeg Police Service has been well-funded over the years would be an understatement. City council has tightened the purse strings on the police budget over the past few years, and that’s due, in large part, to more modest salary increases negotiated in the last collective agreement. But the recent slowdown in spending comes after years of massive funding increases.
The police budget represents 26.8 per cent of the city’s total annual spending. Ten years ago police spending took up 22.7 per cent of the budget. In 2013, it was 20.1 per cent.
Per capita, police spending has been growing at about twice the rate of inflation. In 2008, per capita police spending was $259. That ballooned 49 per cent to $388 by 2018.
The reality is, past mayors and city councillors didn't have the political will to control police budgets. They practically gave police brass whatever they wanted, sometimes at the expense of other departments. The worst years were in 2012 and 2013, when the police budget soared nine per cent and 10 per cent, respectively. Think about that next time someone argues city hall doesn’t have a spending problem.
It’s not as if police can argue they need more money because crime is at historically high levels. It isn’t. Despite the recent rash of violent crime in Winnipeg, the city's crime rate is lower today than it was 10 and 20 years ago.
In 2008, Winnipeg’s crime severity index (as measured by Statistics Canada) was 125.8. Last year it was 119.4. The violent crime severity index also fell slightly from 164.9 to 161.4 during the same period. It peaked at 191.2 in 2009.
Winnipeg has the highest violent crime rate among major Canadian cities. So it needs a well-funded police force. But Winnipeg also has the third-highest police complement, per capita, among major Canadian cities, behind only Montreal and Vancouver.
All of this is important background information when looking at police funding today. City council has mandated that some departments, including police, cap their spending at two per cent a year. Others have lower caps. A few have spending freezes.
A two per cent cap for police is entirely reasonable, especially when you consider the WPS has been funded at twice the rate of inflation for years.
Past police budgets were not sustainable. They were one of the major drivers behind the city’s out-of-control spending over the past several decades, particularly its soaring labour costs.
Only in the past few years has council started to get its spending under control. That’s due, in part, to several years of funding freezes from the provincial government. The province also had to get its spending under control after years of chronic deficits inherited from the former NDP government. Even after 3 1/2 years of spending restraint on Broadway, the province is still borrowing money to pay the bills.
For the city, this is just the beginning. There is still a lot of work to do. City services have to be reviewed and decisions have to be made about what the city should be funding and what areas it should withdraw from. It still has to review the tens of millions of dollars in grants it hands out every year (often to groups that don't fall under city jurisdiction) to determine which ones don’t fit its core city service priorities.
It should also examine why it still allows 85 not-for-profit organizations — which do not fall under city jurisdiction — to use city-owned buildings rent-free. Many of the buildings are old and cost taxpayers millions in upkeep.
Councillors have their work cut out for them. But at least the process has begun.
For police brass, a two per cent spending increase is a fair target. They'll have to roll up their sleeves and sharpen their pencils. But it can be done. It has to be done. The days of 10 per cent funding increases are over.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.