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Column: Why Vancouver police’s budget fight with city hall isn’t over

Mayor sets course for new auditor general to launch audit into VPD’s finances
PoliceBoardAppeal
The Vancouver Police Department got a significant increase to its 2022 operating budget and may add another $5.7 million connected to an appeal ruling coming in January. File photo Dan Toulgoet
If you were tuned in to city’s council’s budget debate and decision last week, you would have learned the Vancouver Police Department got a healthy increase to its 2022 operating budget.

Healthy in that the department’s net operating budget for this year was $316 million and has now climbed to $341.5 million for next year.

Political support coupled with a $15.7 million renewal of the VPD’s collective agreement are reasons for the increase.

But, as regular readers will know, the VPD’s 2022 operating budget of $341.5 million could very well increase by another $5.7 million in short order.

That’s because Wayne Rideout, B.C.’s director of police services, is set to release his decision in January on whether city council was correct in December 2020 to not fully fund the VPD’s 2021 operating budget request.

The shortfall, as the VPD described it, was $5.7 million and translated to the department unable to hire 61 new recruits this year; it should be made clear though that the VPD actually got a $766,000 increase from 2020 to 2021, and was the only city department not to take a cut to help offset revenue loss caused by the pandemic.

Anyway, what I’ve wondered is what happens to the city’s overall $1.7-billion budget for 2022 — which comes with a 6.35 per cent property tax hike — if Rideout rules in favour of the VPD?

I posed that question to the city’s finance team via the communications department.

Here’s what they said:

“The [city’s overall] 2022 operating budget does not include a tax increase for the VPD’s budget appeal. If the director of police services approves the appeal, the city will have to fund it within existing budgets through service level reductions across departments and/or a one-time drawdown from reserves in 2022. Should the appeal be approved, the city would look to increase taxes in the 2023 budget to fund the ongoing impact of the budget appeal.”

Which is interesting on its own.

But the math, unfortunately, doesn’t stop there.

Keep in mind the VPD said they will run a $7.2 million deficit by year’s end — the first time, by the way, the department has run a deficit in 16 years; they attribute it largely to not having the $5.7 million and a record-setting year of policing demonstrations.

My question to the city: Where and how is that deficit being absorbed? What budget?

“Given the 2021 budget has been approved by council and the taxes have been set accordingly to the approved amount [as required by the Vancouver Charter], should the director of police dervices direct the city to fund the VPD as per the request by the police board, the city would incur a deficit in 2021. As the city cannot incur a deficit, other departments would be required to reduce services and staffing, or withdraw from reserves to offset this impact.”

The escalating cost of the VPD budget was clearly on Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s mind last week when he successfully included an amendment during debate that could see the city’s new independent auditor general Mike Macdonell review the department’s finances.

The mayor’s amendment requested that council ask the Vancouver Police Board to request Macdonell “undertake a study of funding provided to the Vancouver Police Board to inform the 2023 budget deliberations.” (The board sets the VPD's provisional budget before it goes to council for final approval).

Coun. Colleen Hardwick, who led the push to get an auditor general, wasn’t happy with the mayor’s request, noting Macdonell was independent of city hall and not to take direction from council or any other board or committee tied to the city.

“So we indirectly are directing an outcome that we're looking for,” said Hardwick in what sounded like a question but was really her conclusion about the mayor’s motive. “When you ask the police board to do something with the auditor general, to me, it's just adding a step. But the intent is still there.”

Macdonell, meanwhile, is set to provide an audit plan to council before the end of January, the same month we learn Rideout’s decision on the $5.7 million.

Which means one thing for certain: more math news.

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

@Howellings