Northwestern communities get policing discounts, seek more support from province
A coalition of northwestern Ontario mayors says the province has agreed to help with rising policing costs in their communities but more financial support to target underlying issues is needed.
The mayors of Sioux Lookout, Kenora and Pickle Lake formed a coalition last year to ask the province for relief as escalating homelessness, drug addiction and mental health issues drove up calls for police service in their communities.
The group said Tuesday that Solicitor General Michael Kerzner has offered new policing discounts for two of the three communities.
"I'm happy that we received something but, I'll be quite honest, I was hoping for more than that," Kenora Mayor Andrew Poirier said in a phone interview Tuesday.
"Giving discounts is fine, but that still means that our calls for service are much higher. It's not sustainable for communities to spend a large percentage of their budget on policing. We're not going to arrest our way out of this problem."
Municipalities are charged a base rate per household by the Ontario Provincial Police for policing services, plus further billing based on calls for service.
The coalition said policing costs in their communities are about three times higher than the approximately $320-per-household median cost for municipalities in Ontario.
Kenora is set to receive a 10 per cent discount on the price it pays for policing, on top of a five per cent existing discount, the group said.
Sioux Lookout – which is also a services hub for those living in several fly-in First Nation communities – is getting an additional five per cent discount, bringing the total discount it receives for policing costs to 40 per cent.
Pickle Lake’s current discount of 95 per cent remains in place.
The group said the discounts are not permanent.
Poirier said the solicitor general has agreed to meet the coalition in about six months to discuss what more can be done. He said Kerzner is also planning on visiting northern communities to see the issues first-hand.
A spokesperson for Kerzner's office said the government continues to work with communities "facing unique challenges in the northwest."
"The ministry is assessing policing costs in these municipalities. Should any agreement be reached, details would be released at the appropriate time," Michael Harrison wrote in a statement.
Doug Lawrance, the mayor of Sioux Lookout, said all levels of government need to help northern communities treat underlying issues driving the high calls for service. He said the north needs more addiction treatment centres, sobering centres and social service centres.
"We've been advocating for that in parallel," he said in a phone interview.
"We've always advocated to improve people's lives and improve the dignity for everybody ... the people living here and the people interacting with the police."
The mayors said other initiatives that could help reduce high calls for service include limiting alcohol supply in the municipalities.
The leaders of the three communities said calls for police service have been escalating since at least 2019 in their jurisdictions.
Calls for service in Kenora were up to 20,000 per year for a population of 15,000 and about 7,800 households, Poirier has said.
"A lot of (crimes) are of a violent nature," he said. "A lot of the crimes come back to the fact that some of these individuals were not provided the necessary programs they could connect with in order to deal with some of their addictions."
The coalition also said that although 2022 OPP data shows their three northwestern municipalities pay the highest policing cost, "there are over 30 municipalities across the north and other parts of the province that also have very high police costs compared to the provincial median."
"We know that we are not alone when it comes to concerns regarding the provincial cost formula for policing," James Dalzell, the mayor of Pickle Lake, wrote.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2023.
Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press