Incumbent Mayor Greg Dionne said the City of Prince Albert needs to look to the provincial government for help lowering crime rates instead of paying for more police officers.
He also defended the current Board of Police Commissioners model, saying an alternative proposal put forward by challenger Darryl Hickie would be “a dangerous road to go down.”
Dionne made the comments Thursday afternoon while announcing details about his plan to tackle crime in Prince Albert, should he be re-elected. He said increasing the size of the Board of Police Commissioners and introducing a civilian chair helped improve representation. He also said the City can’t afford to keep hiring police officers, who account for 37 per cent of total municipal salaries, despite making up around 20 per cent of the City’s 660-person workforce.
“I think it’s been very successful,” Dionne said when asked on Thursday about the current board model. “I see more engagement, and as you can tell with the makeup of the board … we have a wide representation of our community, which is why it makes it so functional.”
In December 2018, Sheryl Kimbley was named the board’s first female civilian chairperson. She was joined on the board by Dionne, two city councillors, and three other members-at-large from the community.
Dionne said he supports having a civilian chair, and strongly rejected proposals from other candidates that would see the mayor back in that role.
“At the end of the day, I wanted a community police board, and I think it’s been very successful,” he said.
Dionne blamed poverty, addictions and social issues for driving up Prince Albert’s crime rate, but said those challenges are a provincial responsibility. The provincial government already funds 20 sworn officer positions with the PA Police. Although Dionne said he would welcome more, especially since Prince Albert police are more regional than municipal, but he believes the real problem is a lack of mental health, addictions and homelessness support programs.
“We can’t keep hiring. We can’t,” Dionne said during an interview on Thursday. “We could add 10 more officers and still have the same problem. The answer is not enforcement. It’s community involvement.”
Dionne welcomed recent announcements from Premier Scott Moe that the new Victoria Hospital addition would have a mental health and addictions component. He also applauded the government’s decision to build a new provincial Crystal Meth treatment centre in Estevan.
However, he said the next mayor needs to keep lobbying for provincial help, particularly for grassroots organizations in Prince Albert like the Mobile Crisis Unit. When asked if the City of Prince Albert would increase funding to those organizations, Dionne reiterated that it wasn’t their role.
“It’s a provincial responsibility,” Dionne said during an interview on Thursday. “We have borders and we have to stay within our borders…. We will assist them with support letters, and the current funding levels we have, but mental health and substance abuse and homelessness is clearly a provincial issue.”
Prince Albert city council rejected calls from Prince Albert residents in July to reduce the police budget following protests over the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. A group of citizens forwarded a proposal asking council to cut a minimum of $750,000 from the police budget and reinvest it in community-led health and safety programs.
At the time, Dionne said that was unlikely, since most Prince Albert residents wanted to increase the police budget, not decrease it. However, he also told reporters that more police officers weren’t necessarily the answer.
“If the province would deal with mental health, that would bring our calls down,” Dionne said following the July 13 meeting. “If the province would deal with homelessness, that would bring our calls down, so it’s (about) working with your partners and convincing them that they have to do their part and do a better job, because that’s how you’re going to bring your calls down.”
Prince Albert police responded to more than 37,000 calls for service in 2019. Police say that number is comparable to what’s commonly seen in communities of 100,000 people.
Dionne also took aim at fellow mayoral candidate Darryl Hickie during Thursday’s announcement. Last week, Hickie pledged to personally take over as police board chair until Prince Albert crime rates improved. Dionne said that would set a dangerous precedent, and instead promised to leave the board model unchanged if re-elected.
“Once the board is appointed, then the board votes who the chair is,” Dionne said. “The only way he could do that is if he appointed only people with his opinion and his vision of the police force, which is a dangerous road to go down. That’s why I support the model that’s there today.”
Hickie, a former Prince Albert Police Association president, has also promised to create a Mayoral Advisory Council with representation from the Prince Albert Grand Council, YWCA, and healthcare professionals.
Dionne also pushed back on Hickie’s proposal to hire six more police officers. Two of those positions will come from cutbacks to administration costs, while the other four will come from new spending, but Dionne said the city has other priorities that need to be addressed instead of new police officers.
Infrastructure is Dionne’s biggest concern. He said reducing the number of paving projects would have a negative impact years into the future. The City’s current project backlog sits at more than $45-million. He also reiterated plans to keep property tax increases as low as possible. Council voted for increases of 2.9 per cent for the 2020 budget and 3.9 per cent for 2019 and 1.53 per cent for 2018. Dionne said he hopes to hit similar levels if re-elected.
“As mayor, my goal is to continue with our paving program and not cut the paving program to fund policing or other costs,” Dionne said in a press release. “The paving program has been very well received by the citizens as they can see the direct results for their money on the roads they drive.”
The Daily Herald attempted to contact Hickie prior to press time, but was unsuccessful.
Dionne is running against Hicke, Josh Morrow and Dennis Nowoselsky in the Nov. 9 municipal election.