Last week, Barrie Police presented its 2023 budget to the City Council, requesting an additional $4.29 million compared to its 2022 budget. This would bring their total funding request to $63 million, representing a 7.28 per cent increase year over year.
Greg Ferguson, chair of Barrie Police Services Board, and Rich Johnston, chief of police, put forward their case for additional funding. Ferguson argued that the money would be used to increase salaries, overtime pay, health insurance coverage, and retirement systems for current officers. He also stated that the extra funding would enable them to hire five more frontline police officers – bringing their total number of officers up to 255.
However, with the exception of Councillors Ann-Marie Kungl, Clare Riepma, Jim Harris, and Bry Hamilton, the council did not ask many questions about the additional funding request; instead, they provided comments in support of the budget.
Mayor Alex Nuttall has adopted a fiscally conservative approach since taking office. At the January 18 City Council Meeting, for instance, Nuttall gave an extensive speech while questioning the $5,000 funding to Hockey Canada. During the police budget discussion, however, he only asked one rhetorical question in support of hiring new officers.
A number of times during the meeting, Chair Ferguson emphasized the Barrie Police’s approach as being “evidence-based”; however, his answers to councillors’ important questions did not seem to be in line with that claim.
One of the evidence based arguments made by Ferguson for hiring new officers appears to be Barrie’s lower ratio of officers per 100,000 population, also known as the cop-to-pop ratio. Barrie has 156 officers per 100,000 compared to the provincial average of 176 and the national average of 183. However it is higher than Sudbury and other cities.
Harris of Ward 8 asked if there are any standards regarding the cop-to-pop ratio. Ferguson replied, “how that ratio works out with other agencies, I wouldn’t be able to comment.”
Riepma of Ward 1 asked if “any of the new staff resources that you are requesting are focused on the diversion factor?”
Ferguson replied that “we don’t get down to specifics on how a new sworn officer would be deployed. That’s up to the Chief and senior command.” It thus remained unclear why the city had asked for additional officers. Chief Johnston offered no explanation.
Sergio Morales, Ward 9 Councillor, had to repeatedly request Ferguson to allow Chief Johnston to answer a simple question regarding electric vehicle policy. “So it’s no disrespect to you, of course,” he pleaded to Ferguson.
Morales did not appear to have any difficulty in summoning Craig Millar, director of finance, to answer a question.
“I think this is a question from Mr. Millar,“ he said. “Mr. Millar, a lot of what I’m seeing in this presentation is there’s extra externalities that are forcing the budget to increase.”
Morales asked Millar to provide the financial impact of the provincial mandated legislation that Ferguson cited in order to request a budget increase.
He also expressed the need to educate the average person in order to convince them of the justification for an increase in the budget.
Hamilton asked several pointed questions, but she was still unable to get any useful information out of Ferguson.
“As a board, do you look at the overall budget spend on admin versus boots on the ground? And is there sort of a proportion or percentage that you try to inform in terms of that balance?“ she asked.
Ferguson stated that there is no breakdown and remarked, “where those resources are deployed and how they’re used. That’s up to the chief.” Chief Johnston, however, did not offer to answer the question, which is often the practice at meetings.
The 2023 budget also has provision for a 3.5 per cent increase in salaries. Hamilton said salaries have been largely frozen over the past few years, with no significant increases in the health care, public, and even private sectors.
“How was that number decided upon?” she asked about the proposed increase.
Ferguson said it is a part of the contract but did not offer any explanation how that number agreed upon.
“All contractual contracts entered into prior to this year,” he said.
Barrie’s first Black Councillor, Nigussie Nigussie, who represents Ward 6, claimed that police’s primary job is crime prevention and that can be achieved through “police visibility and patrolling.” In response to a related question, Chief Johnston stated, “we’re taking our finite resources and we are focusing on those (more serious crime).”
However, neither Ferguson nor Johnston offered any explanation as to whether the city plans to deploy military-style police in every corner of the city that would be necessary to fulfill Nigussie’s wish given the finite resources.
Recently, while taking a stroll downtown, I encountered two police officers on patrol side-by-side. On the narrow sidewalk, the officers refused to budge, so I had to step aside and make way for them; this left me feeling uneasy in light of the violent attack by a Barrie police officer that occurred in February 2021.
This incident has raised safety concerns for non-white communities, yet it was completely ignored by Nigussie or any other councillor during the presentation, raising questions about accountability and police violence in Canada.
Deputy Mayor Robert Thomson of Ward 5, who is also the Vice Chair of the Barrie Police Services Board, echoed Hamilton’s point that the increase was a “large ask.” He then went on to say, “I’ll keep my personal opinion on how we got to this point,” taking a veiled swipe at the previous council.
“I don’t want to see this kind of increase every year. And I understand that we’re playing a little bit of catch up,“ he said.
Nuttall said “it’s a defunding of the police service. That’s happened, happened for years.“ Like Ferguson and Thomson, he failed to mention that the police budget has been steadily increasing since 2018, the earliest year for which information is available to the public.
“Thank you for taking the time to come listen, thank you for bringing some real information and transparency around policing in our city,” he said to Ferguson and Johnston.