While Toronto brings down austerity measures to get its ballooning police budget under control, spending on suburban forces is set to continue its upward climb in 2012. Some of these municipalities are holding deliberations on police costs in secret, prompting calls for greater transparency.
The price of policing has outpaced both inflation and population growth over the last decade, despite falling crime rates. In 2010, Greater Toronto was the country’s third-safest metropolitan area (after Guelph and Quebec City), according to Statistics Canada’s crime severity index.
Toronto’s Police Services Board, the civilian body that oversees the force, is proposing to increase the budget by just a fraction of the inflation rate in hopes of reversing the long-term spending trend. The move is also a necessity in a city whose revenue growth has slowed to a trickle.
Neighbouring municipalities are mostly in the opposite position. Between 2001 and 2010, the population of Toronto’s suburbs grew from 2.7 million to 3.5 million; in 25 years, the provincial government projects, that figure will be 5.8 million. With such breakneck growth comes a rising demand for police, along with an expanding property-tax base to fund them.
York Region’s Police Services Board is proposing a budget bump of $15.5-million – or 6.5 per cent – in 2012, compared to this year. Most of the new cash would be used to hire 34 new officers and 12 civilian staff.
“As far as trimming things, such as is happening in Toronto, that’s not in the cards right now because we’re going to be growing, definitely for the next 20 years,” says chair Danny Wheeler.
But in Peel, Chief Mike Metcalf is keenly aware his force will one day be in the same position as Toronto’s, once the region runs out of land to build on.
He’s already implemented cost-saving measures, such as closing down four small, underused community stations and reassigning officers staffing them to front-line patrol. The force now works year-round to develop its budget, rather than doing it all in three months.
“It’s things like this that are going to help us out, but it’s going to get tougher every year,” he says. “You have to spend [the money]like it’s your own.”
Peel police are seeking to up their budget by 4.2 per cent next year.
In Halton, councillors directed police to keep their budget increase around the inflation rate, which they did, requesting an increase of $5.8-million (3.2 per cent), the second-lowest in the GTA.
Durham police have asked for a 4.5-per-cent bump.
The spending increases are not the only difference between Toronto police and some neighbouring forces: Toronto’s police board holds most deliberations in public and anyone can see a line-by-line breakdown of the force’s budget requests. At least two neighbouring municipalities – York and Peel – hold such debates mostly in closed meetings. (Halton’s police board discusses the budget in public; officials in Durham did not respond to a request for comment.)
While city councils must approve the budget as a whole, the police services board is the only civilian body with the power to make changes to specific line items. If a board holds these discussions in-camera, critics say, it robs the public of the chance to understand the budget.
Hamilton, which is embroiled in a years-long fight over transparency at its police board, is illustrative of this situation: This year, city council sent the budget back to the police board, demanding changes. The board refused to make any, and council had to accept the spending hike.
Richard Leblanc, a York University expert in governance, says closed-door meetings were designed for specific situations, such as a debate over the job performance of managers, not to hide all discussion of a major issue.
“It defeats the very purpose of open, transparent accountability, particularly when it’s public money that’s being spent,” he says. “How can stakeholders scrutinize what’s happening if you have this shadow meeting?”
Officials, including Mr. Wheeler, argue police resources should be kept secret so as not to give tipoffs to criminals.
Hamilton councillor Brad Clark doesn’t buy the argument. He says details on a specific investigation would never end up in a budget. No other city agency is as secretive, he argues: “The fire department has an open process, how is this different?”
Hamilton’s police board was admonished by the province’s privacy commissioner and agreed to hold a public information session on next year’s budget. The board chair did not respond to a request for comment.
Police budgets across the GTA are in different stages of completion, and are set to be passed by councils over the next two months.