The head of Alberta's Rural Municipalities Association welcomes the addition of 500 RCMP officers and support staff as a way to reduce rural crime but is concerned about how municipalities will pay for them.
Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer unveiled the $286-million plan Wednesday that will largely be paid for by smaller, rural communities that don't currently pay for policing.
Al Kemmere, president of the RMA, praised the province for creating new police advisory boards with rural representatives to help set priorities. But he said the extra costs, which will be phased in, come at a time when rural municipalities already face significant financial challenges.
"It is going to be a challenge for us to work our way through that," Kemmere said. "But the end goal here today is to talk about the fact that we are going to together move forward on a process of trying to address the rural crime issue. And I thank the government for that support,"
Municipalities already face the loss of millions of dollars in unpaid property taxes from oil and gas companies, Kemmere later told CBC News. A review of property taxes for oil and gas companies is expected to reduce revenues even further.
"It's either going to result in an increase in taxation to the residents or a reduction in services by the municipalities," he said.
Plan for 300 more officers
Over the next four years, 300 additional officers and 200 civilian staff will be phased in. By the time the new model is fully implemented, Alberta will have roughly 1,900 RCMP officers. Duties of support staff will include providing technical expertise and improving call centre response times.
"This funding will alleviate the pressures that have been felt on the front lines of the Alberta RCMP," said Curtis Zablocki, deputy commissioner of RCMP in Alberta. "For many years, our employees have been holding steady, suppressing and reducing increasing crime with the resources we've had."
Asked if the RCMP can meet staffing requirements, Zablocki said changes at the academy are making it easier to recruit new members. That includes eliminating a written test for candidates with degrees and loosening eligibility to include permanent residents who have been in Canada for 10 consecutive years. Initiatives such as an Indigenous youth camp are also aimed at improving representation within the force.
"In the last couple of years we've made some significant advances in our recruiting efforts," Zablocki said in an interview. "Not to say that we don't need to keep a strong focus on recruiting, because we do it. It's still challenging. I think the important thing about this announcement … is that these numbers are over five years, so it's not the expectation that we're gonna put all these resources in place over the next year. But certainly over the five years that will be our target and our goal."
'I'm already paying ...'
St. Paul county resident Candace Achtymichuk, whose property was robbed twice by the same person in nine months, said the announcement shows the government is starting to listen to the concerns of rural residents.
"I think that's great news, Achtymichuk said. "It is concerning that the cost of it is going to be passed on to us as the taxpayer, because I'm already paying for that. I'm already paying in terms of higher insurance premiums. I'm already paying in terms of the fact that insurance companies don't want to insure us because we're at a high risk because it's a continual problem."
In a news release, NDP justice critic Kathleen Ganley criticized the move for downloading the entire cost of additional police onto rural communities. The new funding model will cost small and rural communities a total of $200 million, with the rest of the new money coming from the federal government.
"This is a historic tax grab being downloaded onto the people of Alberta," Ganley said. "The UCP is not putting a single dollar into this investment. Instead, they're downloading $200 million to the municipalities of this province, municipalities who are already looking at cuts."
Mayor of Nanton Jennifer Handley said the province should stop shifting the costs onto municipalities.
"We're already paying significantly higher property taxes," she said. "So anything that is added to our operating budget will severely impact our rate payers. And it's just not sustainable in small town Alberta."