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Another double-digit budget increase not likely say police officials

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Cathy Dobson

Sarnia Police Service has big budget “asks” for 2024 – like it did last year – but Chief Derek Davis says he realizes the climate is not right for another double-digit spending increase.

“Is the budget going to go up? Yes it is. To what extent? We don’t know,” the chief said.

He predicted difficult economic times on the horizon that generally put more demand on policing. And the anticipated cost of negotiated salary settlements and the impact of inflation on benefits packages, automatically increases the 2024 budget by 4.08%, Davis said.

“So we’re looking at 4.08% more before we even talk about anything else,” he said at a townhall meeting held at the Pat Stapleton Arena Thursday.

Davis said the 2024 draft budget will be presented to the police board Sept. 14 and won’t “necessarily” contain additional officers for the SPS, which currently employs 124 uniformed police.

He spent considerable time discussing the advantages of hiring a canine unit, putting money into reserves for renovations or the rebuilding of a new police headquarters in future years, improving police technology and continuing to focus on mental health, addiction and property theft that consistently occupy a great deal of police time.

Despite the big ticket items that he suggested may be in the budget, the chief said the increase won’t be close to the controversial 11.5% hike approved for the 2023 $30.4-million budget.

“Realistically, the board is well aware of the pressures people face (financially), and we’re going to try to balance that,” Davis said. “I just want people to be aware that the cupboards are not stocked,” repeating that the SPS has few financial reserves.

SPS board chairman Paul Wiersma also said he doesn’t want to see a double digit budget increase like the one in 2023 again.

“You can’t do 11.5% every year. It’s not sustainable,” he said. “As a board, we will have to look at what we can afford as a community while still maintaining adequate and effective policing.”

Wiersma said he agrees with Davis that a canine unit would bring many advantages. 

“I think it’s a very reasonable ask and a priority,” he said. “We’ll have to see how the numbers add up.”

Wiersma also said he wants to see SPS continue to fund, and possibly expand, mental health and community-based initiatives that were started in 2023.

He also wants to see allocation of reserve funds for police headquarters and vehicles. “I think we have to take a serious look at those things.”

Sparks flew during the meeting’s Q & A period when residents offered both criticism and praise.

“We don’t need a better building, we don’t need more technology,” said former city councillor and Sarnia Journal owner Nathan Colquhoun. “We need human beings that have compassionate responses to what is actually going on in our community.

“And I honestly find this disgusting that we have $30 million a year and it’s going to just more cars, better working cars, better radios,” Colquhoun said. “Like, what are we doing? It’s just so insane to me.”

Chief Davis replied, telling Colquhoun that he is uninformed.

Deputy Police Chief Julie Craddock also responded, saying police must handle many unexpected situations and be prepared for them at all times, such as a recent incident when a man arrived at the police station with three shotgun wounds.

“We have to staff to an adequate level so when the unexpected happens, we can deal with that,” she said.

Colquhoun called Sarnia Police Services “bloated.”

Coun. Bill Dennis stood up next to say Colquhoun was “demonizing” the police. He went on to say that many of the people who are dealing with mental health and addiction issues have made some “stupid decisions” and that what is needed is to build more jails.

He was followed by Coun. Anne Marie Gillis who thanked the police for being more visible on city streets in the last year.

Some Sarnia residents felt afraid in their own neighbourhoods a year ago, Gillis said. “We’re starting to see the tide turn.

“It’s not perfect. We know the biggest problem in our community is related to mental health. And we’re still there, but thank goodness we have all these people…the community is coming together to make the difference and we lean on and depend on our emergency services to help us get through to the next day,” she said.

Thursday’s townhall was reminiscent of last year’s seven townhall meetings when Chief Davis and the SPS board outlined the challenges and resources of the local police service prior to proposing the unprecedented 11.5% 2023 budget hike.

Mayor Mike Bradley – who was an SPS member for 35 years – strongly objected to the increase and voted against it. In May, Bradley resigned from the board citing issues with transparency and spending.

A month after the SPS board sees the draft 2024 budget and makes comments, it’s expected to return to the board on Oct. 12 for final approval. 

Once that occurs, it’s headed to city council, which has the option of accepting or rejecting it. 

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