Vancouver police budget to be scrutinized as part of city's 8.2% tax ask for 2020

The Vancouver Police Department's proposal for 35 more staff next year could be put under the microscope Tuesday during a special meeting for the city's controversial 2020 budget

Staff have recommended an 8.2 per cent property tax increase to pay for a budget that has $111 million more in expenses compared to 2019. 

Around $17 million of that increase comes from police services. While part of that is due to fixed costs, part of it comes from hiring 25 new police officers and 10 new civilian employees. 

With several councillors promising to lower the tax increase through the amendment process, at least one believes the VPD budget should be on the table. 

"I am open to looking at the police budget," said Christine Boyle. 

"One fifth of the city's whole budget I think is a lot for people to stomach. That's what I've been hearing from residents, so maybe we look at how we spread that [increase] out." 

Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC

Budget going up

Police and fire budgets invariably take up the biggest chunk of change in any major municipality's budget, with the amount Vancouver spends on those items comparable to other major B.C. municipalities

But while Vancouver's overall budget has gone up by about 118 per cent this century, the budget for police services has gone up by approximately 140 per cent — from $135 million in 2001 to a proposed $324 million next year.

VPD Chief Adam Palmer says that's a function of the overall region becoming more of a metropolis. 

"People in the entire region are always coming downtown for sporting events, social events, theatre, rock concerts," he said.

"So at any given time our residential population actually doesn't reflect what the population is in Vancouver."

The request for 35 more employees comes from a five-year operational review, approved by the previous council in 2017, that would add 172 new people (120 officers and 52 civilians) by 2022. 

Palmer said those increases would make up for years of staffing freezes and cuts. 

"You've got way more pressures coming at you and way fewer people people to deal with it, which is concerning," he said. 

"We're just now almost hitting the same number of police officers that we had 10 years ago."

Firefighter increase also on the table

In critiquing the police budget, Boyle agreed that it was tough for council to reject budget requests made in the name of public safety.

"We need to look at the big picture of this budget ... so we're equally addressing the root causes of homelessness and poverty, and not just putting more money into police to to take a criminal justice approach to these challenge," she said. 

But Palmer said the VPD's services went well beyond law enforcement, with much of their work focused on mental health, missing people, addiction issues and homelessness. 

"The reality of it is that crime is a very important part of what we do. But it's only about a quarter of what we do," he said.

Another safety-related budget increase proposed in the budget is hiring 30 new fire fighters and five additional fire safety personnel — but that seems less likely to be debated by council.

"I'm very committed to the increase that we have committed for our fire service particularly in the midst of the opioid crisis," said Boyle.

"[They're] providing an incredible amount of that frontline service. And I want to make sure that we're continuing to care for those people."