The mayor’s position may come as a surprise to critics who have pegged him as anti-police for his belief that systemic racism exists within the VPD. He has also pushed back against a narrative on social media that crime is out of control in Vancouver.
“There does seem to be this kind of thing that I’m anti-police or something, which is not true,” said Stewart, who doubles as chairperson of the Vancouver Police Board. “I know that my opponents often try to drum up this conflict, but the conflict is not there.”
The police board approved a $325 million budget for the VPD at its Nov. 25 meeting. Stewart chaired the meeting but did not vote because he is not required to unless there is a tie; it was unanimous.
The VPD’s proposed budget will now go before city council, which will conduct its first of what are expected to be several meetings Wednesday in order to finalize a $1.7-billion operating budget for all city operations.
The city’s finance team had recommended the police board approve a $321 million budget. The board instead approved a $325 million budget, which includes increases for fixed, contractual and third-party costs.
A budget report before the board described it as “the minimum budget to allow the VPD to maintain the current existing service level of public safety for the people and businesses in Vancouver.”
The mayor pointed out most of the increased costs are associated to collective agreements.
“We can’t sign on and not honour them,” he said. “It’s labour costs. It’s not like they’re off buying helicopters or something. This is labour costs for the boots on the ground. So I do think we have to make room for that in this budget.”
Stewart was among the council members who voted in December 2020 to not fully support the police board’s budget $322 million request for 2021. The result was the VPD operating this year with $5.7 million less than requested.
That shortfall triggered the police board to request a review of council’s decision by Wayne Rideout, B.C.’s director of police services. Rideout is expected to deliver his decision in January.
The mayor’s explanation for his vote during last year’s budget debate was connected to the negative effect the pandemic had on the city’s finances and employees, almost 2,000 of whom were temporarily laid off. All city departments except the VPD also took cuts.
“It was a really rough time and I think we were justified in not giving the police board the full amount that they were asking for,” he said, but noted the difficult work police do and continue to do during the pandemic and overdose crisis. “It’s very tough on frontline workers.”
Stewart will need five additional votes to convince council to approve a $325 million budget for the police. He already has one vote from Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, who told Vancouver Is Awesome last week that she supports the board-approved budget for the VPD.
“Based on what I’m hearing from the public, and what we’ve seen in the civic satisfaction surveys, safety and crime is an issue in a number of specific neighbourhoods,” said Kirby-Yung, who is married to a Vancouver police officer. “So I think public sentiment would like to see public safety maintained.”