The latest Canadian Federation of Independent Business report on municipal spending reveals that Canadian municipalities are increasing spending at four to 12 times the rate of population growth.
If you look at city budgets, almost half the spending is on the bread-and-butter departments of engineering and public safety (fire and police). Rarely is there any discussion of this spending, because everyone wants potholes fixed and no one wants to be mugged or burned. Firefighters especially, but also to a great extent police officers, are loved and respected for their dedication and professionalism and the vital work they do. Taxpayers consistently pay up with pleasure. But should they?
This year the city of Vancouver will spend $233 million for policing –the second biggest increase in departmental spending over 2012. The fire department will cost taxpayers $97 million – the biggest increase in departmental spending over 2012. Most of that is due to increased wages and benefits.
I suspect not much changes in the world of engineering: a sewer pipe is a sewer pipe is a sewer pipe. But in public safety, a lot has changed. Crime rates are down, surveillance cameras are up, bad-guy data is linked. Between 2007 and 2011, great work by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) – and plenty of budget increases – helped bring down violent crimes by 12%, property crimes by 28% and automobile deaths by 48%.
You’d think that success might translate into less spending. No. Police numbers and pay continue to rise, with the B.C. median income for police officers clocking in at around $95,000. In 2010, citycaucus.com revealed that 477 VPD employees were making $100,000-plus (up from 345 two years before). In Surrey, RCMP’s E-Division headquarters has just been opened – a $966 million masterpiece of public spending.
In Vancouver, police have made efforts to contain costs: keeping 77 authorized positions vacant, using unarmed – presumably lower paid? – peace officers in a pilot project. Police have also been beset with costly demands for reporting related to the Charter of Rights and a new world of online crimes.
Still, you have to wonder why we keep paying so much to so many police officers when crime is declining.
In the fire world, sprinklers are the new fire suppressors. In 1973, 40 people died from fires in Vancouver. Over the last five years, there’s been an average of four deaths per year. Firefighters’ staff numbers are down slightly from 2008, but the budgets keep climbing as firefighters reinvent themselves as medical first responders, safety inspectors and public health clinic hosts. Still, 88% of the budget is for “fire suppression and medical,” even though one source claims the average firefighter spends six minutes a year actually fighting fires – a figure that has been challenged but never corrected. No one else on the city payroll gets paid to sleep. No other group of employees has such a high percentage of second jobs.
Police and firefighters are experts in keeping money flowing their way – not just through generous election donations. Firefighters, unlike any other public servants, interview and pick a slate of candidates to support in paid ads, then send their “private” fire truck and volunteers to election events.
The police are also good at releasing costly reports about the dangers to the community if a budget increase isn’t approved. Or, as former Vancouver (now Victoria) chief Jamie Graham once did, delivering a bullet hole-riddled rifle-range target to a city manager who tried to hold the line on spending.
Former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell, an ex-RCMP officer, once proposed cross-training police and fire forces to do each others’ jobs, as is done in 130 municipalities in 25 states. His idea was quickly shot down, surviving only as a plot line on a Da Vinci’s Inquest episode.
If councils are serious about curbing costs – as they should be – saving on police and fire services has to be on the agenda.