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Unprecedented 11.5% increase for police approved in principle by council

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Cathy Dobson

City council won’t confirm the 2023 budget until Monday but a controversial 11.5% hike for Sarnia Police Services (SPS) was approved today and is not expected to be reviewed again.

The unprecedented increase was supported in a 7-2 vote with Mayor Mike Bradley and Coun. Terry Burrell not endorsing it.

“In a time of restraint, the chief made this request and the problem is that it will be repeated year after year,” said Bradley afterward. “It can’t be sustained. Today reserves were moved over to (pay for it) but we can’t keep asking the rest of the city’s departments to make sacrifices for (the police).”

The mayor is the SPS chairman and has been outspoken about the steep increase in the police budget since Police Chief Derek Davis requested money to beef up street patrols, start an auxiliary, and expand the MHEART (Mental Health) program to address a skyrocketing number of calls related to mental health and addiction. The new budget will increase Sarnia’s complement of officers from 117 to 124.

Bradley and Coun. Dave Boushy, who represent council on SPS, both said they could support an 8% increase in the police budget, but not 11.5%.

In fact, Boushy made a motion for an 8% increase that failed to pass. In making it, he argued that many Sarnians are financially strapped and can’t afford groceries, let alone more policing.

Boushy said he saw 8% as a compromise.

“I have nothing but respect for our police force…I love them,” he said, but added the majority of people contacting him are against an 11.5% increase.

Yet, in an odd twist, Boushy ultimately supported the entire 11.5% increase in the final vote.

“I know this is a difficult conversation,” said Coun. Brian White, then tried unsuccessfully to increase the hike even more by adding a canine officer for another $143,600.

White bristled at the mayor’s suggestion that Chief Davis should focus more on budgeting and less on marketing, referring to the chief’s numerous public meetings to explain why he wanted more police resources.

“It’s unfair to call it marketing,” White said. “The reality is that people in this community are living in fear.”

Davis wants to reorganize policing in Sarnia and “if we want a modern police force, we have no choice but to approve the budget as presented,” White said.

Bradley responded saying he has “defended” the SPS his entire political career.

“We have a modern police force,” he said. “…it’s an emotional debate and a difficult one.”
Coun. Terry Burrell sided with Bradley saying the city has other priorities beyond policing and that he would have expected a more thorough look at the budget by Chief Davis, who took over the job last summer.

Apart from the police budget, council spent Tuesday morning going through every department budget, trimming in some places but not making substantial changes.

Ultimately, the operating budget was approved in principle with a 4.24% increase for those living more than 450 metres from a transit route and a 4.48% increase for those living nearby a transit route.

That translates into an estimated $38 increase over 2022 for the city’s portion of property taxes for those outside the transit area and a $42.46 increase for those in the transit area. If the numbers don’t change on Jan. 16, a Sarnia homeowner outside the transit area with a house valued at $100,000 will pay $927.93 to the city for property taxes. A homeowner inside the transit area, will pay $990.43 for every $100,000 of property value.

Bradley said he wants the tax increase to be closer to 3%. “I think (4.1%) is too high for this climate we’re in,” he said.

The rest of council agreed to allow city CAO Chris Carter to return on Monday with recommendations to further reduce the budget.

To watch this morning’s budget meeting in full, visit https://www.sarnia.ca/virtualsarnia/.

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