As the City of Brandon pulls together its budget for 2014, there have been a number of consultations and public commentary on spending and taxation choices.
Given that protective services (police, fire and 911) represent almost 35 per cent of the budget, it is not surprising that some of the dialogue has focused on what level of service community members require and should expect in these areas. One of these ideas that has been floated is to contract out policing to the RCMP and disband the Brandon Police Service.
I should disclose at the outset that I am the chair of the Brandon Police Board. However, the comments I make here do not represent a collective view of the board, they simply represent my perspective.
The concept of contracting out the service to the RCMP has been championed by Winnipeg Free Press columnist Deveryn Ross, and Mr. Ross’ idea has been supported by Brandon Sun managing editor James O’Connor in a recent Editor’s Notebook column. To be sure, the City of Brandon has the right to determine how it wants policing to be conducted — with our own service under the auspices of a locally governed police board, a local chief and a local force or contracted out to a third-party provider.
However, there is little to no evidence to support the thesis of Mr. Ross that doing so would result in cost savings or a safer community. Further, there is so little evidence that I think it would be a mistake for the City of Brandon to spend upwards of $250,000 on consultants to examine the two options, only to inevitably conclude that we are well served by our own police force and would only spend extra millions on transition and severance costs in making a move to the RCMP.
Think for a minute that like many human service agencies, staffing (salaries, benefits, etc) is the largest single cost of a police service. In Brandon, staffing represents 87 per cent of the operating budget of the police service. Currently, the staffing cost of a first-class constable in Brandon and a comparable constable of the RCMP are relatively similar. So, on a level playing field of service provision, there is little to be gained by contracting out the service.
In addition, Brandon could stand to lose on a number of fronts including:
• Approximately $1.2 million we receive from the province for additional police officers (no RCMP-patrolled municipality receives this), including school resource officers;
• An escalation in bylaw enforcement costs as there are currently efficiencies in having this service provided under the aegis of the police service; and, most importantly,
• Giving up local control and the ability to sculpt the strategies and efforts of the police service in concert with larger community priorities and in partnership with other local agencies.
In my view, Brandon has the potential to be a safe, prosperous, urban environment that is second to none for investing, working, living and raising a family in Manitoba. And "safe" may well be one of the differentiating characteristics that separates us from other major urban centres in the province. Having a locally governed and operated police force is critical to realizing that vision.
I do appreciate that there is a community expectation that public services must remain affordable.
The Brandon Sun’s own Jillian Austin did a fine piece of journalism in 2013 when she illustrated how the national trend of increasing salaries in protective services had been felt in Brandon. That article showed that like the national trend, increases in policing salaries had outstripped wage growth in other sectors of the economy. In particular, between 2005-13, wages grew by 46 per cent for police, but only 27 per cent for the average Manitoban.
And while this escalation cannot be ignored, I would argue vociferously that members of the Brandon Police Service are well worth what we pay them given the service they provide. This past decade has seen monetary gains to reflect the nature and demands of a job that requires strong judgment, independence of action, and a daily willingness to put yourself in harm’s way for the benefit of others.
However, given that 87 per cent of the operating budget is staffing, I believe that our level of service will only be sustainable if future wage growth is more comparable to other sectors of the economy. And, I believe it is this issue (arguably for all city departments and services) which ought to be at the heart of the City of Brandon budget deliberations and forward planning.
However, in the two public consultations I have attended, and in traditional and social media, the dialogue has tended to shy away from this issue — cost containment.
Instead, there has been more attention to "quick fixes" and short-term thinking. This upcoming budget should not focus solely on 2014 (even if it is an election year and some may want the largest mill rate reduction possible). The focus should be on building the city for 2020 and beyond. The 2014 budget must be a piece of the puzzle — but it is only one piece. Most certainly we need to live within our means, but we also need to focus on continuing on growing the community and the corresponding tax base.
Hopefully, as city councillors sit down to make choices, they keep the future firmly in focus and aren’t distracted by elections, short-term thinking and "quick fix" ideas.
» Mark Frison is chair of the Brandon Police Board.
(Ed. note: In his Dec. 21 column, James O’Connor stated: "Hiring the Mounties is something I suggest the city take a good look at. Unless the Brandon Police Association decides to come to its senses and stop pricing itself out of business." Mr. Ross was more direct in his support of the city’s move to the RCMP in his Dec. 12 Winnipeg Free Press column: "That is a question for Brandon’s mayor and council to decide. Whether they have the courage to do so remains to be seen.")