Rising policing costs a major challenge for rural municipalities

Review of Mulgrave’s policing costs currently underway

By Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
August 19 2020

Earlier this year as the Town of Mulgrave set about the task of making a budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the town’s CAO spoke to media about the difficulty of dealing with the rising cost of policing. This is not a new problem and not one limited to the Town of Mulgrave.

In December of 2019 the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities (NSFM) sent a letter to Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Chuck Porter regarding, among other issues, concerns about the cost of policing in the province.

The letter stated, “The rising cost of policing is one of the greatest concerns faced by Nova Scotian municipalities. In 2005, Nova Scotian municipalities spent $1.31 billion on policing. By 2015, this total had increased to $2.16 billion. This equates to a 64.8 per cent increase, which exceeds the 19.5 per cent increase in the overall cost of living during the same period measured by the consumer price index (CPI), as well as the 18 per cent growth in GDP in Nova Scotia over the same years.”

The letter went on to break down the per cent increase for policing in both rural and urban areas. Between 2005 and 2015, the percentage increase for policing cost in towns was 53.63 per cent and 58.76 per cent in rural areas.

The NSFM stated that this rising cost of policing, “constitutes a tremendous pressure on municipal elected officials, who often feel powerless to counteract these cost increases. This is because wages make up the bulk of policing costs, and wages are typically set by arbitrators. When arbitrators decide on wages, they usually duplicate police wage deals from other communities, with little or no consideration for the fiscal situation of the community in question. As a result, many municipalities see continually rising policing costs as proof that the arbitration process is broken.”

The path towards correcting this problem, said the NSFM, was to: consider a community’s ability to pay; a centralized arbitration service; identification of opportunities for alternative resources, including civilians, technology and outsourcing; and sharing those costs that are related directly to responsibilities downloaded from provincial and federal levels, such as cannabis, mental health, policing of international waters and national security.

While some of these suggested solutions may take time to initiate, the NSFM asks that the consideration of ability-to-pay now be considered in “arbitrations for all employees in municipal services, including, without limitation, police services, fire services, and public works, and that the ability-to-pay be based on a consideration of the average homeowner’s tax burden.”

The ability-to-pay is an issue that the Town of Mulgrave has raised with the Department of Justice and a review of policing cost is currently underway for the town. A spokesperson for the province told The Journal in an email that, “Municipalities are independent levels of government and we routinely work with them and policing agencies to conduct reviews of municipal services. These reviews are routine and common for any municipality in Canada that contracts the RCMP. Any time a municipality wishes to consider changes to the terms of their policing contract, they can make a request to the Department of Justice. In this case, the town of Mulgrave has done so. Our role is to support the municipality and the RCMP in conducting a review.”

St. Mary’s warden Michael Mosher told The Journal on Tuesday that policing costs are always a concern for the municipality. “There’s a lot involved here. There’s a large geographical area to cover and the cost of the RCMP to operate goes up. These things keep getting handed down to the municipality. We’re handed the bill and the only option we have is to have our own municipal police force which would be a large expense and a large undertaking for any one municipality to take on. The cost of that would be prohibitive.”

“When we get the bill from the RCMP, we just hope that we are able to work it into the budget and that we can sustain that relationship with them,” said Mosher.

When asked if he was a proponent of the NSFM’s suggestion of an ability-to-pay model Mosher said, “We would welcome anything the province or federal government could do to help us with that.”

MODG warden Vernon Pitts said of the rising cost of policing, “The municipality has absolutely no control over this.” And no choice, municipalities get a bill for policing, an essential service, and it must be paid.

This year the MODG has a 2.6 per cent increase in cost for policing and although Pitts finds this increase reasonable, he said, “It’s a major cost to us; in all actuality with our taxation, we only bring in approximately enough in residential taxation to pay for RCMP costs. That is so close to being a negative number. RCMP actual cost vis-a-vis residential taxation. One pretty well blots out the other.”

Pitts added, “Sitting down and negotiating these deals before rather than after, that would be the proper approach. The Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities; I don’t know that they’re the right bargaining tool for that. Maybe we should be looking at individual municipal units negotiating their own contracts.”