Council approves $500,000 police budget increase

Members of the Prince Albert Police Service SWAT team wait outside a Prince Albert residence in February 2017. -- Herald file photo.

The Prince Albert Police Service (PAPS) will receive a slight budget increase in 2020 after city council approved their funding request at the start of Wednesday’s budget deliberations.

Council voted by a 7-2 margin to spend roughly $17.1 million on policing in 2020, an increase of around $500,000 from 2019.

The final decision came after more than one hour of presentations and debate at City Hall. Council members spent much of that time grilling Police Chief Jon Bergen on staff levels and salaries.

Mayor Greg Dionne wasn’t happy about spending so much on policing, but said the city needs all those officers because of Prince Albert’s high crime rate.

“Unfortunately we need what we have,” Dionne explained afterwards. “The stats are there (and) our members are very busy. It’s not like we’re below the average. Look at the crime severity. We’re in the top 10, so that tells you what we need. Am I happy about it? Absolutely not. Look at the money that we have to spend, but unfortunately that’s the society that we have to live in.”

Bergen received strong support from most, but not all, city council members.

Some, like Coun. Blake Edwards, said other levels of government needed to help Prince Albert shoulder the cost of policing. Others, like Coun. Evert Botha, said property owners were more than willing to pay higher taxes if it meant lower crime rates.

“If there’s one thing I’ve heard over the last year from residents it’s that they don’t mind paying more for effective policing,” Botha told council. “From all the neighbourhood watch meetings, that’s the one thing we hear time and time again.”

“We need the support from the federal government … because we are different,” Edwards added. “They need to recognize that we’re a different city. Our taxpayers can’t take much more. I recognize that. We all recognize this, so where is that going to come from?

“The crime is not going to stop, but we’ve still got to deal with it and keep our people safe, so that pressure needs to come from city council and this Board of Police Commissioners.”

Dionne said the City of Prince Albert plans to send letters to the provincial and federal governments in the week following budget deliberations. He also said he plans to make it a campaign issue during the 2020 provincial election.

Officer numbers, funding sources lead to budget opposition

Not all council members were convinced the proposed budget was a good one. Coun. Dennis Nowoselsky has been the strongest critic of police budget increases, and that didn’t change on Wednesday. Nowoselsky pointed out that Saskatoon and Regina had fewer police officers per capita than Prince Albert, something he said “seems out of balance.”

He then asked Bergen for any ideas on keeping policing costs more manageable. Bergen responded that he brought forward the most efficient budget he could.

“I don’t believe that there’s any room to decrease the police budget from where we are today,” he said.

Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp was the only other councillor to vote against the police budget. She said there were plenty of positive aspects to it, and she liked Dionne’s plan to send letters lobbying the provincial government to fund additional positions.

However, she also said it places too much strain on city taxpayers, while allowing the provincial and federal government to download costs on to municipalities.

“I strongly, strongly believe that we as the City of Prince Albert need to take the provincial and federal governments to task about that,” she said. “They need to be funding policing for the City of Prince Albert more appropriately. It should not come down to large tax increases for our municipality. The provincial and federal governments have a responsibility here, and they are shirking it.”

Lennox-Zepp added that she has no issue with giving Prince Albert police officers a raise, or hiring more of them. She’s just worried about where the funding will come from.

“I think the public absolutely wants our police officers to be paid well,” she said. “When you pay people appropriately, then you get what you pay for. We want well-paid, trained staff doing the policing work in our community, so I absolutely advocate for appropriate compensation.”

Prince Albert police officers have already taken a smaller increase than was already expected. The Board of Police Commissioners submitted the original police budget while union negotiations were still ongoing. They expected roughly $595,000 in increases, but following negotiations, that total fell by $100,000.

Crime in Prince Albert

Prince Albert Police Chief Jon Bergen. – Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Prince Albert’s Crime Severity Index rose for the fourth consecutive year in 2018. Prior to 2015, Prince Albert saw 11 straight years of declines. The city’s 75.0 index rating is sixth highest in Canada, and the overall crime rate is 317 per cent higher than the national average.

Bergen said there’s been a rise in “property crime, weapon offences and crimes of violence” in the community. In response, PAPS took two regular positions and redeployed them as canine units, which are more effective at responding to those calls.

Police received more than 36,000 calls for service in 2018, and are on pace to hit that number again this year. Bergen said that’s the type of call load he’d expect to see in a city of 100,000 people instead of roughly 36,000.

Firearm seizures are also set to rise in Prince Albert. Police seized 96 firearms in all of 2018. So far this year they’ve seized 95.

“Firearms, we look back five years and it wasn’t really a problem. Today, that’s changed,” Bergen told council. “This is an unfortunate reality that we’re responding to.”

Salaries and benefits for the 105 city-funded positions will take up roughly 84 per cent of that $17.1 million budget request, a slight decrease from 2019 when it was around 88 per cent. The provincial government and SGI will fund another 23 sworn officer positions.

PAPS has 103 sworn officers in total, with an average salary and benefits package that amounts to $130,000 an officer. The city has 273 police per 100,000 residents, well above the national average of 185 police per 100,000.

Budget deliberations continue on Thursday, Nov. 7, starting at 8 a.m. at City Hall.