Nelson’s police department is asking city council for an additional $311,000 in funding in 2015 to hire two more officers and a support worker. If approved, it would push the department’s budget above $3 million for the first time.
Chief Wayne Holland, deputy chief Paul Burkart, and police board directors Roger Higgins and Barb Henry spoke to council Monday night. In their presentation, they said the department hasn’t added any officer positions in 20 years and has had no increase in administrative support in 30 years. Although approved for 17 officers, since 2011 the department has actually functioned with 14 to 16 officers, due in part to injuries.
Nelson’s police force is the only one of BC’s 11 municipal departments whose staffing has been unchanged since 1995. It is the smallest department and only one in the interior. The next smallest, Oak Bay and Central Saanich, each have 23 officers, up from 20 and 21 in 1995 respectively. Although Nelson has fewer citizens per officer than those two forces, it has a higher case load volumes.
A national crime severity index in 2013 ranked Nelson 49th highest out of 304 communities with populations over 10,000 for violent crime, 36th highest in non-violent crime, and 35th highest overall. Oak Bay and Central Saanich were near the bottom of all categories.
However, Holland said the majority of what his department does relates to people with mental illness, drugs, and street disorder, which do not turn up in those statistics. “The crime rate isn’t really reflective of what faces the community,” he said.
The 2015 budget request would pay for two new constables and an administrative support worker at $290,000, plus $12,000 for a restorative justice co-ordinator (currently the program, which is just getting started, is run by volunteers) and $9,000 to cover a shortfall in victim services funding. Holland said having more officers to spread the case load around would allow them to be more pro-active rather than simply run from call to call.
If the requests are granted, it would represent about an 11 per cent increase to the department’s budget, whereas in the last eight years council has approved increases averaging 2.9 per cent, for a total of about 23 per cent. During the same period, wages and benefits for officers rose 28 per cent, which the police board says eroded spending on operations and other initiatives.
In arguing for additional funding, the board says the force “works in a city that provides a tremendous amount of centralized core services for a great number of marginalized citizens, many of whom do not live in Nelson.” It says the department polices a much larger population than funded by taxpayers — about 16,000 based on traffic studies, meaning a citizen-per-officer rate of 941 rather than 577.
Using the Canadian average of 193 police officers per 100,000 citizens, or 518 citizens per officer, the board suggests the force should have 19 members.
Police services account for 22 per cent of the city’s tax draw, which has nudged up only slightly since 2003. However, the department says as a share of municipal operational expenditures, it has always been less than other cities, including those that contract with the RCMP.
Mayor John Dooley, who chairs the police board, said the board did not come by its funding requests lightly. “It has taken an extensive amount of conversation, some head banging, and a lot of research to come up with the information presented tonight,” he said. “I can assure you the board is very much aware of the financial challenges this will raise at budget time.”
Holland told council they would seek “innovative ways” to limit the effect of a budget increase. “I’m a taxpayer too, and I think there are ways we can do it,” he said.
Under the Police Act, the police board is required to have its provisional budget approved by November 30, although the actual budget will be set by the new council early next year.
Even if council approves funding for new officers, Holland said it would take some time before they appear on the beat, as they would need to be recruited and trained first.