Sarnia’s police services board approved an unprecedented 11.5% budget hike today despite strenuous objections from the board’s two city council representatives.
The 2023 budget still requires approval in January from city council, which can reject it outright.
But Chief Derek Davis said extensive community input went into creating next year’s
policing budget and it reflects what taxpayers want.
“This is what the community has asked us for,” he said. “We have some significant operational needs in the community that we need to address.”
The budget includes a second constable for the successful MHEART (Mental Health Engagement and Response Team); a new training sergeant; a supervisor and two constables for an integrated mobile police team to do work with people at risk on the streets; and a new volunteer auxiliary unit.
The majority of the $30.4-million budget represents expenditures that cannot be avoided because they are already committed or mandated by the province, said Davis.
Approximately 8.7% of the 11.5% increase is for what he calls uncontrollable costs, which leaves only 2.76% negotiable items.
“That’s pretty frightening,” said Coun. Dave Boushy who voted against approving the budget with Mayor Mike Bradley. Board members Shamel Hosni, Paul Wiersma and Kelly Ash voted in favour.
“Sarnia has about 30% senior citizens, many on fixed incomes,” said Boushy. “That 11.5% is pretty scary for them…we can’t afford it.”
Mayor Bradley objected to what he called “a build-up of bureaucracy” at police headquarters.
“I’m seeing a lot of upper management positions,” he said.
“Respectfully, I disagree,” Chief Davis countered. “We are filling gaps…the highest rank being asked for here is a sergeant.”
Davis said the budget was drafted following a round of townhall meetings to find out what local residents consider top policing priorities. A survey that attracted over 1,000 responses was also conducted to find out what taxpayers want.
It was board member Kelly Ash who most vehemently defended the 11.5% hike.
“What we’re really discussing is a 2.7% increase that the community is screaming for,” she said. “It’s what the community is expecting. They aren’t asking anymore.
“Mr. Boushy, with all respect, you did not attend any of those (public townhalls). I did. The community is angry and they are scared,” said Ash.
Board member Paul Wiersma also spoke in favour saying he is concerned about an increase in violent crime in Sarnia and the community’s request for additional police presence.
Eighty-three percent of respondents to the community policing survey said they feel Sarnia is becoming less safe, Weirsma said.
“Forty-one percent of crimes are not reported because people believe that the police are not able to deal with the crime.”
Thursday’s budget deliberations were preceded by a rare appearance from the president of the Sarnia Police Association who said the membership strongly supports the budget and its increase.
Sgt. Miro Soucek said policing in Sarnia has changed significantly in recent years in large part due to the opioid crisis.
A growing number of people with mental health and addiction issues are spending time in the cell block and have suicidal tendencies.
“Our members often have to run down to the cell block to ensure these individuals survive,” Soucek said.
The number of uniformed police officers with Sarnia Police is “far below” the provincial average for a municipality our size, he said.
In voting against the budget, Mayor Bradley said he supports Sarnia Police Services but also has a responsibility to the city’s taxpayers, particularly as a potential recession looms.
No other department has a budget increase anywhere near 11.5%, said Bradley.
POLICE 2023 BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS
• $30.4-million including $27.7 for salary and benefits;
• includes 4 new constables and 1 new supervisor, for total uniformed complement of 126;
• 8.7% of 11.5% increase represents committed or mandated policing costs and can’t be changed;
• the remaining 2.7% represents $752,660;
• emphasis on community outreach and risk mitigation for mental health and homelessness issues;
• budget will be taken to city council for discussion Dec. 12;
• council can accept or reject the police budget, but not change it. If rejected, changes could be made by the police services board or the budget can be sent to a higher provincial level.