B.C.’s Director of Police Services Wayne Rideout has ruled that the Vancouver Police Department should not have been denied an additional $5.7 million it requested of city council in December 2020 to fully fund its 2021 operating budget.
The decision translates to $5.7 million being added to the city’s already-approved $1.7-billion budget for this year and could mean a property tax increase of 0.6 per cent to the 2023 operating budget.
“We are presently reviewing the decision and accompanying consultants’ reports, but we can confirm that [Rideout] has determined that the city is obligated to provide the $5.7 million that was withheld from the [Vancouver] Police Board’s 2021 budget submission,” said city manager Paul Mochrie in an email Monday.
Rideout agreed with the findings of the consultants who concurred with the police board’s position that the $5.7 million is not simply a one-time budgetary shortfall; the board sets the budget for the VPD before sending it to council for approval.
'Budget is not sufficient'
If the sum was not added back, it would put the VPD budget at risk of deficit in every year going forward, according to the report authored by Peter Lockie and Peter Lepine and obtained by Vancouver Is Awesome.
“The board’s own budget is not sufficient to meet its role and responsibilities, however, the additional expenditures to achieve this are being incurred and the budget overrun is being managed as part of the overall Vancouver Police Board budget,” the report said.
The VPD ran a deficit of more than $7 million in 2021, with Police Chief Adam Palmer and his executive regularly updating the board on how the loss of the $5.7 million had put the department in a deficit situation for the first time in 16 years.
Palmer issued a statement Monday saying the decision to restore $5.7 million to the department’s 2021 budget will ensure the VPD can better serve residents and business owners, and improve public safety for everyone.
“I also want to thank the city’s many residents, business owners and visitors for their patience and encouragement throughout this process,” the chief said. “Our success is driven by their continued trust and support.”
Unable to hire 61 new recruits
The budget fight between the VPD and city council dates back to December 2020 when a majority of city council decided not to fully fund the police-board requested budget of $322 million.
Council instead approved a budget of $316 million, about $766,000 more than the 2020 budget but $5.7 million less than requested for 2021.
In March 2021, then-board vice-chairperson Barj Dhahan described council’s decision not to include the $5.7 million as a “cut.” Dhahan said the decision left the department unable to hire 61 new recruits.
At that time, the board asked Rideout for a review of council’s decision.
Since then, the chief said, Vancouver has been gripped by "an abundance of public safety challenges," including the ongoing Lower Mainland gang conflict, a surge in violent street crime, nearly 1,000 protests, concerning levels of hate crime, “and a growing number of people who tell us they just don’t feel as safe as they used to.”
“I am committed to ensuring everyone feels safe again, and I have every confidence that a fully funded Vancouver Police Department can continue to combat the public safety challenges we face,” Palmer said.
At the same time, VPD statistics show crime continued to plummet in 2021, as Vancouver Is Awesome reported in January.
'That's a lot of millions'
Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who doubles as chairperson of the police board, released a statement Monday saying the decision that he and the majority council made in December 2020 occurred "during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic when all departments were asked to do more with less."
"It is important to note that at no time did the Vancouver Police Department lack access to requested funds thanks to the city’s budget reserves," he said. "I am glad we finally have a decision after waiting for more than a year for this report.”
Stewart pointed out the city spends more than $1 million per day on policing, with a budget that has increased from $317 million in 2019 to $367 million in 2022.
Reaction to Rideout’s decision from city councillors was mixed.
“That’s a lot of millions,” said Coun. Adriane Carr, who was among the majority of council in December 2020 who voted against giving the VPD an additional $5.7 million in 2021.
“So obviously it's a huge concern. It's going to hit us in terms of our ability to do the ongoing work that we've already set forward in our operating plan. And I can't tell you where we're going to get that money from.”
Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung, who wanted the VPD’s budget fully funded last year, said Rideout’s decision reinforces the fact that the delivery of public safety services is a core and significant responsibility of the City of Vancouver. Kirby-Yung is married to a Vancouver police officer, but recused herself from the December 2020 vote.
“Bottom line, that's what this decision means,” said Kirby-Yung, who was critical of some of her colleagues who chose not to add a provision in this year’s budget for the $5.7 million, in case Rideout’s decision was favourable to the VPD.
The VPD and the consultants pegged the department’s deficit for 2021 at $7.2 million, with $4.1 million related to operations and $3.1 million to “unfunded benefits.” Mochrie, however, said the VPD ended the year with a $10.5 million deficit, which includes the $5.7 million, benefit cost increases and an arbitrated wage settlement.
The VPD budget represents 21 per cent of the city’s total budget, and 27 per cent of the non-utility portion of the budget.
Mochrie said the city plans to use reserves to offset the $5.7 million “to ensure we meet our statutory requirement to maintain a balanced operating budget.”
For the 2023 budget, he added, permanent funding will be required to balance the budget, and staff will bring forward options as part of the 2023 budget process.
“As public safety costs are funded almost exclusively from property taxes, an increase to the VPD budget of $5.7 million would require a property tax increase of approximately 0.6 per cent,” he said.
In the most recent vote on the city's budget in December 2021, council approved the VPD’s budget request and was obligated to add $15.7 million in arbitrated wage increases for officers, bringing the total gross dollar amount to $366.9 million, before expenditures.
Which means the VPD is operating this year with a net budget of $341.5 million.
The city's overall operating budget for 2022 is worth $1.7 billion.
Note: This story has been updated since first posted.