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The biggest police budget question is how many cops does Toronto need

Depending on who you ask, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair’s flat-lined 2015 budget request is either a trend-reversing big deal or a total red herring that disguises how the budget will almost certainly increase after a new collective agreement is negotiated with the police union.

The truth? A little from column A, a little from column B.

Blair’s budget request is a pretty big deal — and good news for mayor-elect John Tory — mostly because it sets a more positive tone.

In past years, Blair’s budget requests felt combative, like he was preparing to go to fiscal war. In 2012 and 2013, the his request was one of the most contentious part of the city’s budget process, with Blair and Mayor Rob Ford forever at odds over how much the police should get.

You could chalk that disagreement up to wild conspiracy theories regarding Blair, Ford and drug videos. However, a simpler explanation is that Ford was never very good at negotiating budgets, particularly police budgets.

It feels like a lifetime ago now, but Ford won election in 2010 on a platform that promised to wrangle billions of dollars in savings from most city departments. But with the police, he actually said he would spend some money and promised to hire 100 more officers.

Those new officers never really materialized, but Ford did end up giving the OK to new police spending when his newly-minted administration signed off on a police union contract that awarded them a pay hike worth about 11 per cent over four years. Coun. Adam Vaughan blasted the move, and other critics called it a “rookie mistake.”

Rookie mistake or not, it didn’t work out so well. With his campaign promise and the labour deal, Ford positioned himself as someone who wanted to both increase the number of officers and give them significant pay increases. But during subsequent budget cycles he pushed for major reductions to the police budget.

As strategies go, it was totally incoherent.

Here’s why.

With data sourced from Blair's 2015 budget request, here's a chart of police net operating budget increases since 2005. The major factor causing budget increases? The collective agreement. Those are your labour costs. They increased by $241 million, or 84 per cent, between 2004 and 2014. Non-labour costs, on the other hand, are up just $47 million, a 16 per cent hike. Those costs aren’t even keeping pace with inflation.

It’s clear where the fiscal pressure is, and it’s not with any kind of gravy. Ford’s biggest strategic error when it came to the city’s policing costs is that he advocated for both a bigger police service and a smaller police budget. It should be obvious now that this can’t be done.

Which brings us back to Tory. The good news is that he gets a fresh start and an opportunity to strike a more positive tone. He’s not likely to demand the impossible like Ford did.

The bad news is that nothing else has changed. If Tory wants to control the police budget growth, he needs to address labour costs. And the only way to address labour costs is to consider this question: How many police officers does Toronto need?

Sure, his team should try to win a more favourable labour contract. But that’s a short-term fix. And yes, former mayoral candidate — and Tory transition team member — David Soknacki’s push for a strategic review of the police is a good idea. But over the long term, the question of how many uniformed officers Toronto really needs is what should determine how much the city spends.

It’s not going to be easy. Toronto residents are generally enthusiastic about the idea of reducing policing costs. They may even support the notion of reducing the number of officers citywide. But they’re not so likely to support losing police officers in their neighbourhood, even if all indicators say that crime is dropping.

But it’s time to admit there’s no real alternative. Any plan centred around finding efficiencies should be looked at with a wary eye. Either Tory accepts the rising costs of the police as the fiscal reality or he embraces a long-term plan that will ultimately mean significantly fewer uniformed officers on Toronto’s streets.

Pick a path. Both are perilous.

This post was originally published at on 2014-11-19T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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