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The mid-sized town of Orangeville, Ont. (population 28,000) is a pleasant place to live. Housing is a lot cheaper than in Toronto, and crime rates are low. Nonetheless, Orangeville's police force is the highest-paid in Ontario. Of the 34 municipal employees who made more than $100,000 last year, 14 are cops. Another seven are firefighters.

That's the way it is across much of Canada. The cops and firefighters are taking home the biggest paycheques in town. While other public-sector salaries are frozen, their pay is rising faster than inflation. And the cost is eating small-town budgets alive.

In the northern town of Cochrane, Ont., policing costs have doubled in the past five years, and will soon have tripled. Policing is the city's single biggest cost. Mayor Peter Politis, speaking on the public-affairs program The Agenda, said the police do a terrific job. But he wondered about value for money. "They're being paid to manage black bears," he said.

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Canada's crime rate has plunged to record lows. But police budgets have been growing at twice the rate of the economy. "The police are pricing themselves out of business," says Christian Leuprecht, an associate professor at the Royal Military College and Queen's University, and the author of a new report on police costs published by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Cops are popular and politicians are loath to take them on. The police unions have done a phenomenally good job of negotiating fat raises and job-security provisions. Many forces, such as the Ontario Provincial Police, have clauses in their contracts that benchmark them to the top settlements negotiated by others. That's why the OPP got a whopping 8.55-per-cent pay raise this year. It's all because of Orangeville.

On top of that, arbitrators are allowed to settle union contracts without regard to the municipalities' ability to pay. Ontario's Liberal government could have changed the legislation and put an end to that, but it chose not to. Benchmarking creates a perpetual leapfrog to the top, and the ripple effects flow across the country.

Like firefighters, police portray their jobs as difficult and dangerous, and warn that any cutbacks in service would pose a mortal threat to public safety. In fact, most of the time, their jobs are pretty safe. Firefighters spend almost all their time answering calls that could be handled by paramedics. And just 3 per cent of police calls concern crimes in progress. Despite what you see on TV, Mr. Leuprecht says, police spend 80 per cent of their time maintaining order, not enforcing the law.

Police work "is complex, difficult and demanding and should be well compensated," he says in his report. "The real question is why police who are making upward of $100,000 a year are performing so many tasks that are not really core policing duties."

Which raises the heretical question: Why do we need all these cops, anyway? Actually, we don't. A great deal of the work officers do (writing parking tickets, responding to noise complaints, dealing with rowdy drunks on the street) could be done more cheaply by someone else. Even routine investigative work, such as dusting for fingerprints at a crime scene, can be done by civilians. Those Toronto police officers on their handsome horses are terrific image builders. But what are they there for? Rounding up rustled cattle on Yonge Street?

Some U.S. cities, driven to the brink of bankruptcy by pension and salary costs, are trying creative solutions. Mr. Leuprecht's report details how in Mesa, Ariz., civilian investigators handle about 30 per cent of all police calls, including calls for vehicle and residential burglary (providing the burglars have left the scene). Sunnyvale, Calif., has cross-trained all police, fire and emergency medical services staff, which makes great sense. Sadly, this idea is unthinkable in places like Toronto, where turf wars between the firefighters and the EMS are the stuff of legend.

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Big cities face soaring police costs too. But they have more ways to raise revenue. Hundreds of smaller cities across Canada are taking money from libraries, infrastructure and parks to pay the cops. And for what? To manage stray bears.

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