Vancouver police, fire chiefs ask council to keep budget increases for their departments

As Vancouver’s council hunted for ways to pare a proposed budget with an , the city’s police and fire chiefs made their pitch Tuesday for keeping millions earmarked for hiring dozens more police officers and firefighters.

Other speakers, including anti-poverty advocates, argued against increasing the police budget, which already makes up about a fifth of the city’s operating expenditures.

As Vancouver’s population grew by about 10 per cent between 2009 and 2017, the city cut 58 police officers, police Chief Adam Palmer said Tuesday at the city’s annual budget meeting.

“Working with fewer officers than we had years ago is a huge drain on people,” Palmer said. “At some point, people hit the breaking point. … It really does impact our employee wellness when you’re just running people ragged every day when they come to work.”

Vancouver’s mayor and council heard from dozens of speakers at the all-day budget meeting, each making their case for funding parks, the symphony, libraries, services for the poor, and many other things.

As council considers a proposed $1.6 billion operating budget for 2020 — with a property tax hike more than double the average annual increase in the past 10 years — one of the most expensive “service gaps” the budget aims to fill is by $8.2 million in additional money for Vancouver’s police and fire departments.

Public safety represents the largest chunk of the operating expenditures for 2020 in the draft budget, at about 30 per cent, with 21 per cent for police and nine per cent for fire. Engineering and utilities, at a combined 29 per cent, represent the second-largest portion.

The $8.2 million proposed for police and fire is one of the largest new investments in the 2020 draft budget, alongside other key priorities like $6.8 million to “accelerate .”

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The Vancouver Police Department wants to hire an additional 25 police officers and 10 civilian staff members, while the fire department wants to hire 30 more firefighters and five other personnel.

Chiefs from both departments characterized the hiring as badly needed catch-ups after years of underinvestment.

The VPD’s proposed operating budget for 2020 is $315 million, an increase of 4.6 per cent or $13.8 million over 2019.

There is “complete alignment” on the staffing plan among the police department, police board and police union, Palmer told council Tuesday. “Everybody is in unison on this issue, because everyone recognizes the extreme workload that our officers are under.”

Other speakers Tuesday argued against increasing police funding, including those representing long-running Downtown Eastside organizations like Pivot Legal Society, the Carnegie Centre Action Plan, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. Many argued in favour for instead boosting funds for mental health and support services for vulnerable populations.

Fire Chief Darrell Reid also made the case for why Vancouver Fire Rescue Services needs the money for 30 additional firefighters. Vancouver’s firefighters respond to the highest number of calls per capita of any major city in Canada, Reid said, and has the same number of employees now that it did in the 1960s.

“The resources that we’re asking for … are required to take good steps toward providing the level of service that we should provide,” Reid said.

The city’s proposed operating budget of $1.62 billion is more than 50 per cent larger than a decade ago, far outpacing population growth or the rate of inflation.

Council is to begin debating the budget next week.

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