Will police costs break the bank?

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Mayor Brian Bowman and police Chief Devon Clunis appear to be comfortable with the fact neither of them runs the police service. That's the job of the new Winnipeg Police Board, which was created to provide independent oversight.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/01/2015 (2816 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Mayor Brian Bowman and police Chief Devon Clunis appear to be comfortable with the fact neither of them runs the police service. That’s the job of the new Winnipeg Police Board, which was created to provide independent oversight.

The two men held a news conference Monday to express mutual support following a dust-up last week that was sparked when Coun. Marty Morantz, chairman of the city’s finance committee, demanded answers about what police were doing to find savings in their budget.

City council approves the final budget, but line-by-line decisions are made by the police board.

Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press At left, Mayor Brian Bowman and Winnipeg Police Chief Devon Clunis at a news conference at City Hall regarding the WPS and collaboration for fiscal responsibility in the ongoing budget process.

Coun. Morantz may have been technically out of line, but he was expressing the concerns of the broader community, which has watched policing costs jump more than 36 per cent over four years, from $189.9 million in 2010 to $259.1 million last year.

Cities across Canada are grappling with the same challenge. Even former Public Safety minister Vic Toews, now a Court of Queen’s Bench judge, said there was a need to curb costs or eventually face drastic cuts.

Politicians themselves, however, are responsible for inflating police numbers in the name of safety, even as crime was declining.

Chief Clunis has a rough plan for cost control, including so-called smart policing, which involves sophisticated crime analysis to anticipate crime and deploy forces efficiently.

He is also committed to replacing some police jobs with civilians, which is unlikely to produce significant savings.

The chief also believes social development will reduce crime and calls for police service. If police didn’t have to spend as much time chasing runaways, managing mental-health and family problems, waiting in hospital emergency rooms or courtrooms, the costs of policing would drop significantly, since the city wouldn’t need as many officers on the street.

All of this is admirable. But it’s a long-term plan without any guarantees the rate of growth in the cost of policing will be contained.

Since 85 per cent of the police budget is salaries and benefits, it’s obvious any cost-reduction plan has to target both the number of employees and their cost.

This is where the rubber hits the road, but it’s unclear that either the police service or its board is committed to the challenge.

City hall is still responsible for collective bargaining, but its negotiating hand is weak. Under the rules of binding arbitration, the city is precluded from citing an inability to pay, a principle that only has meaning in the private sector. The city — any government, for that matter — cannot claim it must freeze wages because it hasn’t sold enough widgets.

In approving wage increases, arbitrators consider local economic conditions, but they rely heavily on comparative data from other Prairie cities, as well as wage settlements with other civic bargaining units. Police also believe they should receive increases above those of other city employees. That means if CUPE negotiates a three per cent increase, police think they deserve more. The salaries of police in Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon are also considered for comparison purposes.

Police and other civic employees have been earning generous wage increases over the years, which has put enormous pressure on the budget. The city must get tougher with its unions, while the province could use its power to compel arbitration boards to consider the city’s ability to pay. Ontario considered such a move, although the legislation was never enacted.

The bottom line is Chief Clunis’s long-term plan is too long and too iffy.

The city needs to get more serious about controlling its rising payroll costs.

History

Updated on Tuesday, January 13, 2015 7:54 AM CST: Replaces photo

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