Police budget error raises questions over transparency
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Brandon taxpayers should be able to expect clarity when it comes to issues of public finance and budgetary concerns. This is precisely why city councils and their various departments make public the facts and figures surrounding preliminary budgets and their various funding requests before they get approved for the upcoming fiscal year.
Most of us don’t give these issues a second thought, as the city hires accountants and managers to handle such budgetary issues. But when it comes to the management of the police and its annual budget, the situation is slightly more complex with the added feature of a provincially mandated police board, which gives general direction and supervision to the department.
Under the province’s Police Services Act, the police board must provide city council with an estimate of the costs required to operate police services in the next fiscal year, along with any other information the council needs to assess the financial requirements of the service.
This should be — and usually is — a relatively straightforward arrangement, but events of the last week have us concerned about that process.
Last June, rising gas prices prompted the Brandon Police Service to warn the board that it was projecting a $72,139 deficit in the 2022 fiscal year, with the estimate based on the force using the same amount of fuel as in past years.
“We are monitoring that very closely and will work with our finance partners as we move forward throughout the year in our budget reviews to see where we can find some efficiencies,” Brandon police Chief Wayne Balcaen said at the time.
That deficit seemed all but confirmed later in December of last year when Balcaen informed the board that the budget shortfall was expected to be $71,903.
Then, of course, we learned during the March 10 police board meeting the deficit number was significantly larger than first understood, and a “difficult year” was the reason behind a higher-than-expected deficit of $215,173 for 2022.
“It’s never great for me to come forward and say that we have a budget deficit,” Balcaen said at the meeting in city council chambers.
In addition to the rising fuel costs, which was noted on the police board agenda as one factor, Balcaen also cited higher overtime costs, salaries and lack of income from fines, tickets and criminal record checks as reasons for the shortfall.
But at last week’s board meeting there was no mention that the initial number presented in December was simply wrong — the result of an accounting error. To our minds, that is something that should have been stated on the record at that time.
When the Sun went looking for a deeper explanation for the discrepancy, neither Balcaen nor police board chair Deb Arpin volunteered the accounting explanation. Arpin told the Sun that gas prices and overtime factored heavily into the reported jump in the deficit figure, as well as a “personnel issue” that she declined to expand on. In fact, the board chair was defensive when the Sun reporter pressed the issue.
At the end of the day, it was police board member Mayor Jeff Fawcett who offered the accounting explanation for the mistaken December deficit figure. Fawcett said the mistake was made by the BPS during a turnover in staff, a fact that Balcaen later clarified, saying the December figures were based on the department’s projected budget, not the “actual” council-approved budget.
These kinds of situations do occur — something can be missed when a change in personnel takes place. We all have to allow for human error. And it should be further stated that it was only two years ago the city police posted a $150,570 budget surplus, due in part to lower-than-expected overtime costs.
Note that a newly hired chartered accountant was introduced to the board last week, so we trust this will be sorted out accordingly.
As such, our issue is not necessarily with the fact the situation occurred, but rather why it was so difficult to get a straight answer, and why, specifically, it wasn’t made public in the first place that the problem was due to an accounting error.
While, as Fawcett noted, the amount in question is merely one per cent of the overall police budget, this is taxpayer money that needs to be properly accounted for by the board, the police department and ultimately city council.
Which brings up one other point — it still isn’t clear who is going to have to pay for this shortfall. On March 10, Balcaen told Coun. Shawn Berry that because municipalities are responsible for police services, the city would be footing the bill for the extra spending. Meanwhile, Fawcett said police would have to contribute too.
We would suggest these kinds of budgetary process questions need to be as transparent as possible, going forward.