Saanich’s third day of budget deliberations yielded revisions to the 2019 draft budget as councillors meeting as committee of the whole asked Saanich’s top cop to revise the police budget, a demand he questioned by referencing a famous murder case.
“We are looking at a very, very, significant tax lift if we move forward with the draft financial plan as is,” said Coun. Ned Taylor in support of a motion from Coun. Karen Harper to revise the police budget to a “status quo” budget with a proposed increase of 3.55 per cent in additional revenues. The initial police budget called for an increase of 4.97 per cent to fund additional staff.
The reduction would cut about 0.4 per cent off Saanich’s overall tax lift.
Harper acknowledged the contemporary complexities of policing. “But the pressures aren’t just on the police board,” she said. The municipality and its residents also bear pressures, said Harper, who left room for additional adjustments.
Coun. Rebecca Mersereau echoed Taylor and Harper in suggesting that the police department has not made the kind of sacrifices required of other departments.
Supporters of this “status quo” budget also pointed to the results of the Saanich Citizens Survey, which found 97 per cent of respondents were either “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied” with police services.
“I feel safe saying that Saanich residents are very happy with the police service they are receiving, despite the pressures,” said Harper.
Chief Constable Bob Downie warned against reading too much into those results. Individuals like “Mr. Buziak” and others have a different view, when it comes to satisfaction levels with Saanich Police, he said. (Downie was referring to Jeff Buziak, the father of Lindsay Buziak, a realtor whom Saanich police found murdered on Feb. 2, 2008. Her murder remains unsolved and Buziak has been a sharp critic of Saanich police).
Saanich police are short-staffed now, and a status quo budget would merely push various problems down the road without resolving them, Downie said.
“I don’t believe that we can sustain the path that we are on,” he said, adding that the police department has to work within a budget that it cannot supplement with additional revenues that it could raise on its own.
Addressing the issue of departmental fairness, Downie said his department is not competing for resources with other departments.
He said provincial legislation requires council to provide Saanich police with adequate resources. What is “adequate” lies in the “eye of the beholder” (council) or provincial authorities, he said, in raising the possibility that Saanich police could take their funding requests to the provincial government for review.
Coun. Nathalie Chambers and Coun. Judy Brownoff voted against the motion. Chambers said she is concerned about the rising cases of domestic violence and cybercrime. Brownoff, for her part, agreed with the broad need to trim the requested increase, but proposed a smaller cut of one per cent instead.
Thursday’s vote was not without its tensions, as Downie pushed back, a point Mayor Fred Haynes recognized.
“This is not a happy chamber,” said Haynes. “Nobody takes these decisions lightly.” This said, he broadly defended council’s direction: “We have to recognize citizens’ ability to pay.”
Revisions to the police budget symbolized an afternoon of additions and substractions. When deliberations started Thursday, Saanich residents faced a tax lift of 5.93 per cent with 25 per cent covering the introduction of the Employers Health Tax. Councillors then added items (including 19 additional staff across various departments) worth $928,780 to budget discussions before trimming back $900,000 under a budget reduction scenario proposed by staff.
Speaking to the additional staff, Coun. Colin Plant said nothing guarantees that all of these additional positions would survive budget deliberations, but framed some of the additions as necessary to improve service areas such as planning and development permit processing among others.
Following reductions, council then turned towards the police budget, before dealing with other items – including labour –behind closed doors.
By Saanich News deadline, no official figure for the proposed tax lift was available, but the public heard that an additional one per cent in the tax rate would add up to about $1.2 million.