City police propose adding two more officers, 2.73% budget hike

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With calls for service and crime on the upswing, Owen Sound’s police service is proposing to hire two more full-time officers next year to ensure “adequate and effective policing.”

Chief Craig Ambrose said the city has gone from having 40 full-time and three part-time officers in 2011 to 37 full-time and five part-time officers in 2020.

However, since 2011, the department’s annual calls for service have jumped by 20 per cent, the city’s crime severity index has climbed by 67 per cent and yearly criminal charge violations have more than doubled.

The current staffing model is no longer sustainable, he said, while presenting his department’s 2021 spending plan to council during the city’s operating budget deliberations Thursday.

“The workload for the officers is incredible. That workload continues to grow every year and really I think now it’s reaching its breaking point,” he said in an interview.

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The perception that Owen Sound is a small, quiet community doesn’t match reality, he said.

“It’s always busy here; there’s always a queue of calls waiting. And I think it’s important that we get to the point where we can address that and help the officers. Because if you continue to work under that type of stress and workload, it ends up affecting our most valuable assets and that’s the people who work for us. And I can’t continue to place those demands without trying to remedy the situation,” he said.

Ambrose is proposing to add one new recruit next month and a second in April, which would return the number of full-time-equivalent officers to 2011 levels.

The proposed staffing increase, along with wage hikes for existing staff and additional costs for court security are the main factors driving a proposed 2.73 per cent increase in the police department’s draft 2021 budget. The department’s net costs are set to rise from $7.61 to $7.82 million.

Owen Sound’s overall draft budget for 2021, which includes those net policing costs, will require the city to collect $31.66 million in property tax revenue next year, about 2.76 per cent more than in 2020.

Corporate services director Kate Allan said that will result in homeowners paying about 1.9 per cent more in property taxes next year, after factoring in new assessment and Grey County and education levies.

A 1.9 per cent combined hike will equate to about $72 more in property taxes in 2021 for the owner of an average home, assessed at $220,000.

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Council didn’t approve the draft budget Thursday. It’s expected to hold that vote, following a public meeting, in January.

Thursday’s meeting was council’s first on the proposed operating budget. Much of the morning was spent on the proposed Owen Sound Police Service budget.

Ambrose told council the department’s annual calls for service climbed from 14,399 in 2011 to 17,510 in 2019. That number is expected to reach 18,384 this year.

Just over 910 people received a criminal charge in Owen Sound in 2019, up from 450 in 2011. The time required for police to process charges has also increased, Ambrose said.

Meanwhile, the city’s crime severity index (CSI) has risen by 67 per cent since 2011. Its violent crime CSI has increased by nearly 50 per cent and is now the eighth highest in Ontario.

Ambrose said Owen Sound is unique to most cities its size because it’s an employment and commercial hub as opposed to a bedroom community of a larger city. Social service and support agencies are also centralized in Owen Sound, which concentrates a marginalized population, he said.

Homelessness, mental health and addiction are significant drivers of police calls for service, he said.

Owen Sound’s daytime population increases to about 40,800, which results in higher daytime call volumes, he said.

Ambrose said Owen Sound’s current police to population ratio is one to 576, but changes to one to 1,103 during the day. That’s lower than anywhere else in the province, he said, and well below the provincial average of one to 565.

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The city’s police department had the third-highest criminal code offences per officer ratio in the province.

Officers are so busy, Ambrose said, that the department can be only reactive to calls for service.

He said the two additional officers will conduct proactive duties, which are necessary to meeting the demands for service and address problem areas.

“If you’ve got a complaint about drug activity at a house or ongoing issues between two residents, rather than just going there, trying to deal with it, trying to fix it and then getting onto the next call because there’s something else waiting, these people can go back and take some time, work with the people and try to come up with a more permanent solution,” he said.

Ambrose said while he could justify seeking four additional officers, adding two this year will address the department’s staffing issues in a fiscally responsible manner that allows the city to keep its combined tax hike below council’s two per cent goal.

Coun. Richard Thomas said he has no issues supporting the department’s proposal, noting it’s clear from Ambrose’s presentation that policing costs cannot be viewed solely as a financial issue.

“It’s a social issue and it’s a social issue that’s not going away,” he said.

Coun. John Tamming said he still thinks council should request another OPP costing, as he believes savings can be found in the service’s budget.

He noted Orangeville’s switch to the OPP this year. The town anticipates it will cut its annual policing costs from about $10 to $5.5 million by 2026 due to the change.

Mayor Ian Boddy said based on the comparisons Ambrose provided between Owen Sound and other Ontario communities he thinks it’s appropriate to add two officers “to protect the community.

On the overall city budget, Boddy said the projected 1.9 per cent combined property tax hike is consistent with council’s ongoing goal of approving annual increases that are less than neighbouring and comparable municipalities.

“And little by little we work our way to having lower taxes compared to other municipalities,” he said.