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Dan Fumano: VPD budget boost approved, but debate will continue


Analysis: Like Goldilocks, the police board chose the middle option when presented with three budget proposals. Now the debate moves to council, who must approve 2022 budget before knowing results of 2021 appeal.

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The Vancouver policeboard has approved the department’s request for a $5-million budget boost over last year, setting the stage for debate next month in council — and likely more to follow next year on the campaign trail.

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On Thursday, the board approved a provisional 2022 net operating budget of $321 million for the VPD, which will now go to council for consideration, as part of the city’s annual budgeting process, with a final decision expected in December.

But debate on the issue won’t end next month because this marks the current council’s final budget before Vancouver’s next municipal election in October 2022 — where public safety figures to be more of an issue than it has in recent memory — we can expect to hear more about this over the next 10 months.

And council will be in the unusual position of needing to decide the 2022 budget without knowing the result of an appeal of the 2021 budget.

The budget covers all manner of city services, but police funding will take more time and attention than libraries, swimming pools, or engineering. One obvious reason police funding faces more scrutiny is it makes up the single largest part of Vancouver’s budget, as it does in most Canadian cities. In recent years, the police department has accounted for about a fifth of the total city operating budget, which last year was $1.6 billion.

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But beyond simply being the biggest piece of the budget, the subject of police funding — and defunding — has also become an increasingly contentious political debate in Vancouver and other North American cities in recent years. So whichever way the mayor and each council member vote on the police budget question, it’s likely to be used against them by political rivals vying for their seats next October.

In a draft 2022 budget released Tuesday, city staff proposed a $321-million operating allocation for police services. Staff had drafted the budget, at council’s direction, aiming to limit property tax increases to no more than five per cent.

That $321 million marked an increase of $5 million over the $316 million council approved last year. But council’s police budget decision last year was controversial, and questions around it are not yet resolved.

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The VPD does not support the city’s proposed budget, as it made clear in a report to the police board, the civilian oversight and governance body.

The department’s report says the proposed $321 million police budget would only cover increases for fixed costs, and would mean holding job vacancies equal to about 15 fewer police recruits.

Instead, the VPD presented the board with two budget proposals: a $325-million option, which they describe 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,” and a $328-million alternative, which would, among other things, allow the hiring of an additional 20 police officers and 10 civilian employees.

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Like Goldilocks, the board chose the option in the middle.

At a meeting Thursday, board members approved what they called “option two,” the $325-million proposal. That is, less than everything the department wanted, but almost $4 million more than what city staff have proposed.

The board’s decision this week is not the final say on the budget — it is essentially a recommendation to city council. Under B.C.’s Police Act, the police board approves a provisional budget and submits it to council, and council can determine the amount to be included in the city’s budget.

This process was a point of contention at this time last year, when the department requested and the board approved a $322-million budget in November 2020, and the following month, council decided to hold that to $316 million.

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At that time, Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer publicly registered his disappointment, saying “this decision will directly impact public safety in Vancouver and the wellness of our officers.” The police board also announced its own “grave concerns” around council’s budget reduction, saying it was “carefully considering the implications of this cut and addressing possible next steps.”

Those next steps came three months later, in March 2021, when the board announced that due to concerns about service levels and public safety, it had formally asked the province’s director of police services for a review of the council-approved budget.

That request for a review was a rare move, and Glacier Media described it as perhaps unprecedented in Vancouver’s history.

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But council members and city staff still do not know the result of the 2021 appeal, nor will they know before they need to decide on the 2022 budget.

In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Public Safety said the review, which will focus “on the impacts of the alleged budget shortfall on service delivery and adequate and effective policing,” is expected to be completed by the end of January.

Council will consider the 2022 budget at a special meeting next Wednesday, where they will hear from staff and the public. Final deliberations and decisions are expected the following week.

But that, of course, will not be the end of it.

dfumano@postmedia.com

twitter.com/fumano

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