An Owen Sound councillor says it might soon be time for council to have another discussion on switching from municipal police to the OPP, after a service review identified “virtually no” options to reduce the department’s $7.75-million annual operating budget.
“What we need to say to the city police board is if they can’t find the savings we’ve asked them to, that we’re going to reopen the OPP debate,” Coun. John Tamming said in an interview following Monday’s council meeting.
“It’s a legitimate option. I think it would keep our community safe. It would not be the same level of service perhaps, but this town is crying for relief from taxes. There are many areas that I don’t think we should cut, but police and fire have been identified as key areas.
“I think if we give the police basically a pass, which is what I heard tonight, a virtual pass, I don’t think they get sufficient pressure then to make the changes that are necessary.”
Owen Sound Mayor Ian Boddy said while he also wishes the review had found more options for lowering the department’s costs, it’s unlikely others are possible without having to cut specific policing services.
“In this time, when we’re dealing with opioid issues, we’re dealing with mental health issues, I don’t see where we’re going to cut services in our community,” he said.
Boddy said he would not support revisiting the proposal from the OPP, which he noted would provide less services to the city.
“It’s not going to be any different the next time. The OPP wanted to add five police officers; that wasn’t going to be more efficient,” he said. “When we actually looked at it, their costs were going to be higher than our costs now.”
Owen Sound received an OPP costing and retained Levack Management Consulting in 2017 to present an apples-to-apples comparison between that proposal and the service provided by the city police.
The consultants concluded the OPP would cost about $4.9 million more than the city police in Year 1 due to start-up and severance/pension-related costs. In both 2019 and 2020, the OPP would cost about $700,000 more.
However, from 2021 to 2027 the OPP’s cost would be about $1 million less per year than the city police. Those costs were calculated using a current OPP costing formula, which includes a base fee and takes into account calls for service and other expenses like for overtime.
Council decided not to switch to the OPP, but instead asked the city police board to review the cost comparison and consider conducting a service review to find efficiencies, using the OPP costing as a benchmark.
The police board also retained Levack to undertake the service review. Chief Craig Ambrose presented the findings to council.
He said the consultants concluded the Owen Sound Police Service is an “efficiently managed organization that provides adequate and effective policing in Owen Sound.”
The consultants made 22 recommendations, which they said would save the department $225,000.
Ambrose said 17 of those suggestions have already been implemented or are in progress.
The remaining five, he said, could actually increase the department’s costs by about $122,000.
He said not all of those options could even be approved at this time. For example, the recommendation to allow people other than police officers to conduct traffic control would require an amendment to the Police Services Act, he said, and another suggestion would not be allowed under the service’s Canadian Police Information Centre licence.
The department would lose about $50,000 in net revenue alone, he said, if it approved the option to move bylaw back to the city.
Ambrose said the best opportunity for savings would be to partner or share resources with other police departments. He is currently discussing options with the Hanover Police Service.
After Ambrose’s presentation, council approved a motion from Coun. Richard Thomas to have another discussion on the consultant’s report at a meeting in July.
Thomas said council needs time to digest the information as it first received the report Monday.
Tamming told the chief he’s “massively disappointed” with the consultant’s report. He asked Ambrose if there is a “single, meaningful expense” that he would be willing to cut.
Ambrose said 90 per cent of the service’s costs are for wages and benefits. He said the department was able to decrease its budgetary increase this year from 3.7 per cent to 2.25 per cent.
“The 17 efficiencies that we’ve put in the place is cutting costs. And that is what is keeping the budget where it is now,” he said.
Tamming said the direction from council was for the board to find $1 million in savings or as close to that amount as possible.
If that can’t be achieved, he said he would like council at a later date to revisit the OPP discussion.
The cost comparison from Levack showed the OPP would cost the city $1.7 million less over a 10-year period than the Owen Sound police.
But Boddy said the OPP proposal did not include about $335,000 in annual services currently provided by the city police, which include community programs like officers visiting schools and the accident reporting centre.
He said the OPP would not provide the same level of service as the municipal police.
“If we want a lower level of service then we’re going to have to make that decision. If you don’t want a drug squad in the City of Owen Sound then it can be eliminated if that’s really what you want,” he said. “But at what cost?”
He said he will continue discussing potential policing partnerships with other municipalities.