More policing for the big city

Ottawa Citizen Editorial

February 25, 2004

The increasing cost of Ottawa's police is one reason why city council is almost certain to impose a small increase in the tax rate this year. That's the price we will have to pay as a growing city.

It may seem strange that the Ottawa police are ramping up their spending at a time when other city employees are being laid off or taking early retirement and programs are being folded. But that's exactly what is happening. The police service is asking for $15.3 million more this year, bringing the total police budget to $160 million. What people may not understand is that it's just the first year, and that a further $11.5-million increase in the operating budget is expected for next year and a further $10.2 million the year after that. Over the next five years, the police service expects to spend $52 million on capital projects, too.

How did all of this spending happen when the city is in such a financial corner? The main answer is that the police service is expanding, adding more officers and civilian support staff -- 63 positions in 2004 alone. Ottawa is growing, but also there's a sense that the city is encountering some big-city problems, such as gang violence. And there's a strong desire from neighbourhoods for more police in the streets. For instance, the police service has a new traffic unit, formed in response to concerns of utter traffic lawlessness. With motorists being stopped and expensive tickets handed out, drivers in some neighbourhoods are behaving noticeably better.

All of these police cost a lot of money. Compensation for the 1,645 employees consumes 85 per cent of the police budget. There are wage increases to pay for and $6.8 million this year just in pension contributions. Nevertheless, the city's police costs, based on 2002 figures, compare reasonably with those in other Canadian cities.

This doesn't mean that the police spending plans must be automatically approved over the next few years. In recent months, the police service has found $2 million in costs to trim for the coming year.

The police can and do change gears to respond to crises and trends. Part of those changes should be cutting non-essential management jobs and elements such as community police centres. The community centres may be good community relations, and the efforts of hundreds of police volunteers are valuable. But the storefront police centres, open during business hours, aren't essential to the core job of protecting public safety and they cost $2 million.

The police service is an indispensible public service, and citizens in our city are asking for more of a visible presence as Ottawa goes from being a big little city to a little big city. Like it or not, we're going to have to pay more, even as other city services are reduced.

See Witness Group letters of response