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Detail of road damage on Bearbury Drive in Etobicoke, Ont. in 2007.

Yvonne Berg/The Globe and Mail

A Toronto police officer stands over an open manhole. A school crossing guard walks a group of children across a busy road. Which job is more important? If the hourly wage were the measure, it would be the officer: $65 an hour to guard the hole versus $10.68 an hour to guard the children.

Off-duty paid policing in Toronto has become a lucrative business, one that a free-market observer might even call a racket. Rates are set by the Toronto Police Association, as it has done largely unopposed since 1957. Provincial statutes and city bylaws protect that monopoly.

These off-duty officers - who are paid about double their regular-duty rate - stand over holes in streets, and at construction sites; they escort funeral processions, oversee film shoots and mind sporting and entertainment events. It costs $29-million a year, including the city government's share of about $5.2-million, to have officers mind municipal work on roads and other infrastructure. No other Canadian city spends as much on paid duty as Toronto; it's a tidy little business.

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In Cape Breton, private companies and municipalities have a choice over whether to hire police or private security. When it comes to road work, they've got that covered, too; specially trained workers preside over it. In Vancouver, a traffic authority has a unit of special constables who only do paid-duty work.

But in Toronto, the bored police officers presiding over street holes, directing traffic, have become symbols of the waste of taxpayers' money.

Fortunately, this decades-old problem has finally caught the attention of Toronto's city budget committee. It voted this month to scrap a rule requiring paid-duty officers be at construction sites within 30 metres of a traffic light. It also recommended that a city manager review the existing policies on having paid-duty police at special events. It urged the municipality to consider setting up a group of less costly traffic wardens to replace off-duty police.

It's time for Toronto to parcel out some of these jobs to well-trained security guards or to create a special-constable corps at a reduced cost. An amendment to legislation will be required to establish a new unit similar to the Vancouver Traffic Authority program, but it will be well worth the effort.

When minding a hole pays six times more an hour than minding children to cross busy streets, something is terribly out of whack.

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