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Mayor Rob Ford laughs it up at his swearing-in ceremony at Toronto city hall on Dec. 7, 2010. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Mayor Rob Ford laughs it up at his swearing-in ceremony at Toronto city hall on Dec. 7, 2010. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Ford's clash with Blair over police budget doesn't make sense Add to ...

“The cost of policing is out of control,” city councillor Michael Thompson told the police services board on Wednesday. It is hard to argue with that.

When the current Toronto police service was formed in 1957, board chair Alok Mukherjee said, it had a budget of $12.6-million. Today, it is closing on $1-billion. In the intervening years, the city’s population has grown to 2.6 million from 1.3 million, and the strength of the force has gone to 8,000 from 2,291. So while the population has doubled, the cost and size of the police force has grown by many times that.

Policing is becoming to cities like health care is to provinces, gobbling up resources and making it harder and harder to pay for other vital services. Cities across the country and around North America struggle with soaring police budgets.

In Toronto, that struggle has come to a head in a dramatic fashion with the clash between Mayor Rob Ford and police chief Bill Blair over Mr. Ford’s demand for a 10-per-cent cut in the police budget. Chief Blair says it cannot be done without laying off hundreds of officers. He may be right.

Eighty-eight per cent of police spending goes to pay and benefits. Seventy-one per cent of the $267-million increase in the police budget since 2004 is due to higher wage settlements. The city made things worse for itself when the police board approved a wage deal this year that will give cops an 11-per-cent raise over four years.

Mr. Ford was already in charge at city hall when that deal went through. To hand the police a generous pay hike, then tell the chief to slash his budget is wildly contradictory. To make things stranger still, the demand comes from a mayor who, when he was running for office, promised to hire 100 new police officers.

Mr. Ford has said over and over that the police service is the last thing he wants to cut. He says he wants to reduce the police budget without reducing the number of officers – just as he wants to cut city spending without cutting services and run the cash-strapped TTC without a fare increase. Easier said than done. This mayor seems to think he can solve every problem simply by saying, like Star Trek’s Captain Picard, “Make it so!”

Now we have Mr. Thompson, an ally of the mayor and a key member of the police board, hinting broadly that Chief Blair should be fired if he doesn’t come through with the budget cut demanded by the mayor. It is a pattern of behaviour – do our bidding or you’re toast – that we have seen again and again from the mayor’s office.

It is especially unfair to level such a threat at Chief Blair, a dedicated leader who is only trying to do his duty to keep the city safe. Instead, he finds himself portrayed him as a foot-dragging obstacle to progress, guarding his pot of gravy.

The chief showed his frustration when he was questioned by the police board on Wednesday over his plans to cut costs. “We are always looking at ways to be more effective and more economic,” he said. “But I have to make the payroll. I have to pay the bills. We have to have a budget that reflects the cost of doing business.”

Was he being defiant when he refused to bring in a budget cutting 10 per cent in one year after a wage deal that added nearly $25-million a year to policing costs? Or was he simply being realistic about what could be achieved? The police board seemed to acknowledge the problem when it suggested on Wednesday that Chief Blair should show them what it would take to cut the budget by 10 per cent over two years instead of one.

Threatening to sack the chief will not solve the money problems of the police service or of the city. If the police costs are soaring, the problem is not Bill Blair.

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