News Local

Questions raised over cop budget

Bob Bruton

By Bob Bruton, Barrie Examiner

Barrie councillors had the city police budget in their sights Monday, and made some noise about a nearly double-digit projected increase in policing costs this year.

The city's police board is asking for a 9.73% increase to its 2011 budget, another $3.7 million which will bring annual policing costs to more than $42 million. Salaries and benefits represent 88.64% of the police budget.

But some councillors have problems with the big numbers.

"We have been adding officers at double the rate of calls of service and double the rate of population increases," Coun. Barry Ward said. "It's becoming unsustainable. We just can't have double-digit increases.

"Is there any chance in the future there will be some relief? Is there any way to get the costs under control?"

Coun. John Brassard asked the questions his constituents have been asking him.

"They are saying this police service is out of touch with the economic realities these people are facing," he said, "that a 10% increase is excessive."

Barrie homeowners are facing a 4.3% tax increase this year on a typical house assessed at $261,000, which means adding $143 to existing taxes of $3,360.

"We have seen a police budget that is increasing year after year after year, that there is no mechanism in place to ensure some control," Brassard said. "What would you say to the people who say 10% is too much?"

"We are working in a medium that is not efficient, the justice system," said Doug Jure, police board chairman, mentioning the time officers have to spend in court.

Although serious crime continues to decrease in Barrie, as is the case right across the country, there was a 5.8% increase in calls for service last year.

Barrie Police Chief Mark Neelin has said the increases were across the board, although there were about 300 more traffic accidents in 2010, compared to 2009, and false 911 calls, some of them 'pocket dials' on cellphones, went up as well.

"The calls are increasing dramatically. They are complex and varied," said Jure. "Barrie ratepayers want more policing, not less. Crime prevention depends on uniformed officers walking and patrolling our streets."

"Quite often the police are the first people who are called," said Neelin, noting not all calls are criminal in nature.

Mayor Jeff Lehman, a member of the police board, said it's not all about cost.

"Crime is down, for five straight years in Barrie," he said, "which is very good news for Barrie."

Coun. Bonnie Ainsworth, also a police board member, said some residents lack understanding of how a police service works.

"The most important thing in a city is safety," she said. "If you can't feel safe in your community, you might as well stay home and lock your doors."

But Coun. Michael Prowse, chairman of the city finance committee, asked that city police try to do a better job of customer service. He said some lower priority calls to police - barking dogs, stolen bikes, etc. - leave Barrie residents with the impression that city police are too busy for these calls.

"That leaves a taste in the mouth of our residents," he said, "who at the end of the day have to pay the $42 million for policing."

Neelin explained that police have a priority system for the calls received, and that more serious incidents get immediate attention - while others have to wait.

This year's police budget includes hiring 10 new police officers and four civilians. Three of the new Barrie officers will go to the downtown office, one each to the four platoons which police the city 24/7, two to criminal investigations and one to community services. Two of the civilians will be in information technology, two in administrative support. The additions would increase Barrie's police force to 238 officers and 102 civilians, plus a number of part-time employees.

This year's police budget also shows the impact of court security costs, about $3 million. The province will begin to assume a percentage of those costs next year, but it's a sliding scale for local police.

The police budget is part of Barrie's 2011 operating budget and business plan, which councillors begin debating on March 28.

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