Freezing police budget a 'very challenging task,' board chair tells committee

As the City of Ottawa's powerful finance and economic development committee (FEDCo) eyes another three per cent property tax increase in 2022, there is debate over where the money should go, with some calling on the chair of the police services board to uphold a committment to freeze Ottawa police budget next year.

A possible three per cent hike to the Ottawa Police Service's budget in 2022 was on the agenda at FEDCo on Tuesday, with speakers lined up, calling on committee members to reject the increase.

 "Why are you considering increasing the police budget when your constituents are telling you they want a reduced role for police?" Asked speaker Robin Browne in the virtual committee meeting, held over Zoom.

The Ottawa Police Services Board passed its 2021 budget late last year with a $13.2 million funding increase. Dozens of community members and organizations called on the board and Council to scrap the planned increase in funding, but Coun. Diane Deans, who chairs the police services board, said it wasn't that easy.

"You can't, just a few days before you pass a police budget, decide to reduce the numbers by 13 million dollars. That would have meant layoffs at police because most of the increase that they're getting this year goes to cost of living increases and their salaries," Deans said in late November.

On Tuesday, Deans acknowledged that policing is being reimagined and needs to change.

"Part of the change includes finding ways to reduce the police services budget while continuing to provide effective policing in our community," she said. "The police services board made a commitment in the fall of 2020 to make its best efforts to reduce and freeze the OPS budget at 2021 levels in 2022. The board has been working hard to achieve this goal and I can say that we are committed to making our best effort to reduce the OPS budget ask this year."

The Ottawa Police Service paused recruitment for new hires earlier this year due to budget constraints.

Delegations at the FEDCo meeting Tuesday questioned spending millions of dollars on policing instead of directing it toward community groups and other services.

"Millions of dollars that they are basically giving to police instead of community organizations that are actually doing the work," said Ray Eskritt, executive director of the Harmony House Women's Shelter. "A woman died in Canada every two-and-a-half days during the pandemic because of violence in their homes. We don’t fund prevention of that; we only fund the police to go after it has happened."

Deans said the police services board is striving to find savings to honour its commitment to freeze the budget.

"This is a very challenging task," Deans said.

"As a member of council, my ward has had issues with violent crime and gun violence and I recognize that there is a real need for policing in our community, but we need to strike a balance between finding savings to reduce the police budget while continuing to provide effective policing in the city of Ottawa," she added. "That is what the police services is committed to doing, regardless of what the budget direction is."

Three per cent increase in property taxes

The 2022 draft budget won't be tabled for several months, but city staff recommend the municipal tax increase be set at three per cent overall for 2022, along with a 2.5 per cent increase in transit fares.

The city-wide levy, which includes funding for the Ottawa Public Library and Ottawa Public Health, would increase by no more than 2.6 per cent.

The Transit Levy would increase by no more than 4.5 per cent, and would include a $5 million increase to the contribution to the capital transit budget.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put continuing pressure on city coffers, through increased expenses and lower revenues from things like transit fares and rentals of city facilities.

City staff say the 2022 budget will outline estimated post COVID-19 financial pressures, and include mitigation measures to cover possible funding and revenue shortfalls, including the use of city reserves, possible reductions in service levels and various additional mitigation measures.

If approved, a three per cent increase in property taxes would cost the average urban homeowner an estimated $119 more in 2022. Rural homeowners would see their tax bill go up by $91.

The 2022 draft budget will be tabled on Nov. 3.

--With files from CTV News Ottawa's Leah Larocque and Josh Pringle.