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Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair.Ian Willms/The Canadian Press

Less than a month after a spate of gun violence prompted Toronto's mayor to call for more officers on the street, police are being asked to freeze budgets at 2012 levels, despite warnings of layoffs from the chief.

The freeze, requested by the Police Services Board in a vote Wednesday, follows a target set by city manager Joe Pennachetti in a letter to the board chair last month. That letter, and the board's vote, mark the opening moves in a debate over the appropriate costs for policing that is likely to dominate budget discussions this fall.

Fueling that discussion Wednesday was Councillor Mike Del Grande, the city's frugal budget chair who took the unusual step of appearing before the police board to preach the need for spending restraint. Mr. Del Grande has no direct influence over the police budget, but he came with a list of areas where he would look for savings, including overtime and technology costs. He also challenged the notion that increasing the number of police translates into a safer city.

"No one has been able to tell us definitively how many police officers does it take to police the City of Toronto," Mr. Del Grande said following the meeting. "The mayor may feel he needs more police officers. It's my job to raise the questions."

At a time of limited resources and falling crime statistics, the budget chief, who is a close ally of the mayor and a member of his executive, nevertheless questioned the need to increase police numbers. "I don't subscribe into more, more, more," he said.

At close to $1-billion, the police budget accounts for the largest share of city spending. While Mr. Ford has talked of increasing police officers, he also has pledged to hold residential tax increases at 1.75 per cent next year followed by a two-year freeze – a tall order without keeping police spending in check.

During the debate, Councillor Michael Thompson asked fellow board members to endorse the zero target with the provision that any cuts would not endanger public safety.

Before the vote, police Chief Bill Blair warned of possible implications. "If you commit to those targets you are committing to layoffs," he said.

He toned down those comments later when speaking to reporters, saying he will do everything possible to deliver high levels of policing service in the most economical way possible. "A significant portion of our budget is salary. If we were to actually achieve those reductions, then it would require reducing personnel, " he said.

Chief Blair also clarified that there are a number of options for reducing the force's payroll, with layoffs being one of them.

Mr. Del Grande said all city departments, agencies, boards and commissions are being asked to hold 2013 budgets to a zero-per-cent increase at a minimum.

The letter from the city manager dated July 16 to police board chair Alok Mukherjee refers to the funding freeze as a "starting point," and gives $935.7-million as the 2013 budget target, based on this year's approved operating budget, adjusted for a salary settlement with senior officers.

"In addition, I would like to ask that you continue to control expenditures through cost saving measures and do not introduce any new service initiatives for 2013," the letter states.

Last year, a similar letter from the city manager asked for a 10-per-cent cut from all city departments, agencies, boards and commissions. After much debate, including a meeting between the chief and the mayor, council approved a 0.6-per-cent increase in police spending.

Asked if other agencies, boards and commissions should expect a similar message of spending restraint from the budget chair, Mr. Del Grande was quick to respond. "You can count on it," he said.

With a report from Adrian Morrow

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