A deal may be close in talks between B.C. and the federal government to keep the RCMP as the police force for most cities.
Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender, the municipal observer in the negotiations, said the tone of federal officials has become more cooperative and conciliatory, adding "significant" progress was made this week.
"Nobody is threatening anybody at the moment," he said after returning from negotiations in Ottawa. "I am more optimistic than I've been that we'll get there."
Federal officials told B.C. in September to sign a new 20-year RCMP contract by the end of this month or else they'd begin withdrawing the Mounties in 2014.
That ultimatum prompted B.C. to start assessing what it would take to launch a replacement force.
Fassbender said a final deal isn't likely by the end-of-month deadline but added a framework may be ready and he doubts Ottawa would "pull the trigger" and act on its threat if that's the case.
"I can't see the federal government using a calendar date as the breaking point if we're moving ahead and close to a deal."
The agreement, if concluded, will be a 20-year contract with an option every five years for any party to reopen discussions on any aspect of it, he said.
Any city or province will be able to opt out of the RCMP on two years notice, he said.
Ottawa hasn't budged on B.C.'s demands for a more generous cost-sharing formula, which currently sees large cities pay 90 per cent of local RCMP costs, while smaller ones shoulder 70 per cent.
But Fassbender believes new provisions, including a contract management committee, will give cities much more meaningful input and control in containing escalating RCMP costs and influencing decisions made in Ottawa on an ongoing basis.
Fassbender said the provincial government is continuing to evaluate what an alternate force to replace the RCMP might look like and what might be involved.
"It doesn't hurt to know what the option is," he said. "If a deal comes together and we sign a 20-year contract I don't think we have to look at it as earnestly as
if we weren't going to have a deal."
Solicitor General Shirley Bond said some simpler items have been settled in the talks but complex issues remain.
"I'm hopeful that the momentum that's taking place in bargaining would allow us to make sure there isn't an arbitrary deadline," she said.
Bond said cities want to keep the RCMP if possible, but "certainly not at all costs."
B.C., home to the largest number of Mounties in the country, has been thrust into a position of leading the talks on behalf of other provinces and territories.
Its bargaining position eroded earlier this year when Saskatchewan and Alberta broke ranks and renewed their RCMP contracts, but with a me-too clause that also gives them any improvements B.C. negotiates.
The current RCMP contract expires at the end of March.
SFU criminologist Rob Gordon said B.C. should press forward – even if there is a deal – to set up regional police forces in Metro Vancouver and Victoria to replace the current mish-mash of municipal police and RCMP detachments in those areas.
"B.C. needs to proceed straight away to seriously look at the alternatives," he said, adding that should take the form of a task force or blue-ribbon review.
Advocates like Gordon maintain a regional force would be better equipped to bust gangs and other criminals who don't care about civic borders.
Gordon said civic leaders like Fassbender seem too focused on the cost of the RCMP without considering the efficiency gains from switching to a regional force.
"He's still very much in favour of the RCMP because he can't see a viable alternative," Gordon said. "The municipal concerns are very parochial, focused very much on financing. There's no talk of efficiency along with the costs."
There are 11 RCMP detachments in the Lower Mainland, including Burnaby, Richmond, North Vancouver and Surrey. Seven cities are policed by municipal forces.
B.C. disbanded its former provincial police force in 1950 in favour of the RCMP.
– with files from Tom Fletcher