City council’s ABC Vancouver majority voted Tuesday to unlock $16 million in the 2023 budget to help fund the party’s campaign promise to hire 100 police officers and 100 mental health nurses.
The 6-3 vote means $8 million will be provided to the Vancouver Police Department to hire 100 officers next year and an additional $8 million will be made available to Vancouver Coastal Health to bring on more nurses.
“This is an extraordinary move for a local government to be moving into this area,” said ABC Coun. Mike Klassen in his closing remarks to council. “It's because it's an extraordinary time.”
Klassen was referring to the human tragedy in the Downtown Eastside and drug-fueled street disorder in other neighbourhoods across the city, including Chinatown, Yaletown and Strathcona.
Since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, police have reported a spike in random attacks on citizens, with mental health a contributing factor in 73 per cent of cases examined between March and June of this year.
At the same time, anti-Asian hate crimes have surged and vandalism to businesses — whether it be broken windows or graffiti — is widespread, particularly downtown and in Chinatown.
Homelessness, as seen along the East Hastings Street strip, is also believed to have increased since the city’s last homeless count in March 2020, when volunteers counted 1,548 people living in some form of shelter and 547 on the street.
“You cannot put a price on public safety, and you cannot put a price on mental health and wellness,” said ABC Vancouver Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, who is married to a Vancouver police officer. “And we cannot afford not to do this.”
The $16 million was not a number disclosed to the public until Tuesday’s meeting.
ABC Vancouver Coun. Lisa Dominato’s earlier motion called for $4.5 million to pay for officers and $1.5 million for nurses.
Further complicating the math was the Vancouver Police Board’s release prior to the council meeting of the VPD’s proposed budget for 2023, which totals $383 million and includes $15.7 million to hire 100 officers and 20 civilians.
'I'm a bit dismayed'
Green councillors Adriane Carr and Pete Fry, along with OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle, voted against the funding commitments and spoke critically of ABC Vancouver’s changing of the dollar amounts.
Boyle said she was concerned expensive decisions were being made on “what feels like on the fly” and that it didn’t equate to good governance for the recently inaugurated council, which is dominated by eight ABC Vancouver members.
“Maybe some councillors have been privy to conversations about these numbers, but many of us are finding out about them in an amendment circulated within the last hour, or on social media,” she said. “I don't think that that's a good way to be making these decisions.”
Carr said she would have preferred the request for the 100 officers and 100 nurses was outlined in a staff report, allowing for analysis and an opportunity to ask staff specific questions about the budgets.
“I'm a bit dismayed by the last-minute changes and rather than comprehensive, I find it confusing,” she said. “We are working in the absence of good solid information.”
Fry described ABC Vancouver’s push for the officers and nurses — without analysis or further detail — as setting the stage “for what looks to me like a little bit of a blank cheque approach.”
Added Fry: “I worry about how our budget is going to be affected by this and what it's going to mean for other services that Vancouverites rely on across our city, and that we pay for.”
Dominato told the councillors the $8 million represents a “full block of funding” instead of a partial investment of $4.5 million. Same goes for the jump from $1.5 million for the nurses to $8 million.
The $15.7 million mentioned in the police’s proposed budget for 2023 represents the annual cost for the officers, she said. The officers aren’t anticipated to be on the road until the end of the year, with the VPD estimating deployment takes nine months from the hiring date.
“My understanding is that these were estimates based on conversations with VPD and VCH around the costing for [full-time equivalents] for mental health nurses and police officers,” Dominato said.
“And there is now a public document the [Vancouver Police Board] has released around costing the budget. So that has helped inform our information.”
Police board meets Thursday
Meanwhile, the police board meets Thursday to decide on the VPD budget.
Once that’s finalized, the VPD budget will then go before city council as early as next week, when council holds its first meeting Nov. 29 on the city’s overall budget for 2023. However, ABC Vancouver has signaled strongly that debate on the budget will be moved to the spring.
During the recent election campaign, Mayor Ken Sim — who was absent from Tuesday’s meeting because of a pre-planned vacation to Qatar — estimated it would cost $80 million over four years to reach the party’s goal to hire 100 officers and 100 nurses.
Sim wants the officers and nurses to work in tandem and expand current VPD programs such as Car 87/88, which sees plainclothes officers work with psychiatric nurses to respond to citizens experiencing mental health issues.
The VPD also runs two mental health-related outreach teams that include nurses, social workers, psychiatrists and counsellors.
The VPD’s mental health unit is another program that has officers working with Vancouver Coastal Health to reduce the number of people with untreated mental health disorders from cycling through the criminal justice system.
Chief Adam Palmer attends press conference with Premier David Eby
Though council can unlock the funds for more officers, Police Chief Adam Palmer has the final decision on where new recruits will be deployed and in what capacity.
Palmer, however, has been clear at news conferences and in interviews that he supports more programs and intervention teams to help people in a mental health crisis.
Palmer was one of the featured speakers at Premier David Eby’s news conference Sunday to announce the “safer communities action plan,” which includes cracking down on violent offenders, new models for addictions treatment at St. Paul’s Hospital and expanding mental health crisis response teams.
“These initiatives build on and complement some of our community partnerships and programs that we already have in place in Vancouver but will enhance them and make our programs even stronger,” said Palmer, referring to the VPD’s mental health-related teams.
Council heard from more than 20 speakers last week who favoured non-police crisis intervention teams and pointed to successful programs running on the North Shore and in New Westminster.
Despite the 6-3 vote Tuesday over funding the officers and nurses, council was unanimous in supporting amendments to Dominato’s motion that direct staff to work with Vancouver Coastal Health and the Canadian Mental Health Association to explore options and opportunities to implement such non-police teams in Vancouver.
Only nine councillors participated in decisions Tuesday because of Sim’s absence and ABC Coun. Rebecca Bligh feeling unwell and unable to attend the meeting.