When Sarnians say they are afraid to walk alone in their own neighbourhoods, Coun. Bill Dennis says something has to be done.
“I am fiscally conservative but I believe in spending money where I see value,” he said following a public meeting at Our Lady of Mercy Church Monday hosted by Sarnia Police Chief Derek Davis.
Davis spent an hour laying out his plan to combat increasing crime and a sense among many Sarnians that they are not safe in their own community.
His recommendations would increase police spending by 11.5% in 2023, a figure that Dennis said he wasn’t behind prior to Monday’s meeting.
But after hearing numerous residents plead for more police presence on Sarnia streets, Dennis said he’s “strongly considering” voting in favour of the budget without asking for cuts.
“I saw the stats, I saw the public’s reaction, and I see the value in this budget,” Dennis said.
“We’ve always talked about the proverbial Old Lady on Brock Street and how she struggles with tax increases. Well now she’s afraid of getting mugged when she leaves her house and she’s afraid that someone is rummaging through her shed.
“I’m thoroughly impressed with what the chief had to say.”
Mayor Mike Bradley and Coun. Dave Boushy are city council’s representatives on the Sarnia Police Services (SPS) board and, along with Coun. Terry Burrell, were the only council members not at Monday’s meeting.
Both Bradley and Boushy have been critical of the large increase and the mayor has suggested it pads the bureaucracy at police headquarters.
But Coun. Brian White said after Monday’s meeting he predicts the majority of council will support it when the budget is debated.
“The public engagement has been well organized and the public has made a clear statement that this is what they want their money spent on,” White said.
The proposed budget includes hiring a second mental health (MHEART) officer, a second training sergeant, and a three-person team to address a growing number of calls related to mental health and addiction. It also includes a new volunteer auxiliary team.
“I’m not saying this will solve the problem, folks, but this is a start,” said Davis, turning the meeting over to the 100 or so who filled the church hall.
“I am all for this,” said one man who got on his feet immediately. “We need this. This is really important to the safety of our community… If our city council rules against it, I’m going to be pissed off,” he said to loud applause.
“I am afraid to go outside my apartment without my dog,” said Sue Schmuck, a Durand Street resident. She moved to Sarnia in 2019 and said she’s witnessed her neighbourhood deteriorate.
“I don’t walk the streets of this city by myself at night,” Schmuck said, describing the prevalence of drug use, theft and bike chop shops. “Someone needs to help us.”
“I commend the police chief,” said Maria Street resident Ron Brewer. If this MHEART and IMPACT (Integrated Mobile Police & Community Team) doesn’t go through, I’ll be very upset.
“I want to see random street patrols. A police presence on bicycles would make a big difference.”
About 8.7% of the 11.5% proposed budget increase is non-negotiable because of uncontrollable costs that were either approved in previous years or are required to meet policing standards, said Davis.
“So what we are actually asking for is a 2.76% increase.”
That 2.76% represents $752,660.
The SPS budget has already been approved by the police services board (Bradley and Boushy voted against it) and will be debated by city council in January when members can either accept or reject it.
City council does not have the authority to make cuts to the police budget and, if council rejects it, the budget could be sent to arbitration by the province’s police commission.
Davis and SPS member Paul Wiersma are scheduled to address council about the budget at a public meeting at city hall Dec. 12.