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Council votes against reducing police budget but approves 1.3% property tax hike

Last Updated Feb 17, 2016 at 8:51 pm EDT

City council has voted against a series of motions that sought to reduce Toronto’s mammoth billion dollar police budget.

Councillor Michael Thompson led the charge to slash what he called the “runaway” budget. His initial motion sought to cut it by $24 million.

When that was defeated he introduced a succession of new motions seeking cuts of $20 million, $18 million, and finally $12 million respectively.

One by one, they were defeated.

Council did vote to expedite recommendations in a KPMG report on modernizing policing.

Earlier, council approved a 1.3 per cent property tax increase for 2016 after a number of votes to raise taxes even higher failed.

The hike is in line with the rate of inflation, which keeps with Mayor John Tory’s promise going into the budget debate.

The increase will mean the average homeowner will pay an extra $34 this year. Include the 0.6 per cent levy to pay for the transit expansion in Scarborough, and homeowners will be paying $72 more this year over last.

The vote in favour of the 1.3 per cent increase was 30-13. A motion to raise property taxes by 1.6 per cent was voted down 30-12 and a proposal to increase taxes by 3.9 per cent was voted down 33-9.

Now it’s up to council to juggle the numbers to ensure the budget stays within that 1.3 per cent increase, which won’t be easy.

Property tax increase

But the biggest item up for debate was the proposed police budget, which was approved by executive committee to increase by almost 2.5 per cent.

Police Chief Mark Saunders argued that cutting the force’s budget by $25 million would mean removing up to 400 front-line officers — a move that would jeopardize public safety.

“You’re looking at close to 400 officers,” Saunders said earlier Wednesday. “Take a look at today’s news. Take a look at today’s climate and do you think that under this existing model 400 people less would be a benefit to the city or a detriment to the city?”

“I don’t think that makes any sense. I don’t think the general public thinks that makes sense.”

(To view video on mobile, click here)

The special two-day council meeting started Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. Click here to watch it. Click here to read the agenda.

Thompson futilely tried to convince councillors that police cuts were necessary.

“One of the things we have learned over the years and over decades is that the police are unwilling to actually make the necessary changes, whether structurally to the organization or to the budget, unless they are forced to do that,” he said in the hours leading up to the votes.

“The fact of the matter is that we actually have a runaway budget…”

Thomson said he understood concerns about public safety being impacted, but added that measures had to be taken to rein in spending.

“I’m a resident here, we’re all residents here. We’re not trying to create a situation where criminals will run wild in the city. But what we do know is that we have to arrest the police budget. And quite frankly at this particular point in time, it’s my view that it’s out of control.”

In an unprecedented move, Chief Saunders made the rounds at City Hall on Tuesday talking to politicians about keeping the police budget as is.

Mayor John Tory argued that while he wanted the police budget trimmed, he was ultimately against drastic cuts to front-line officers.

“I tend to think that keeping the city safe, making sure we have the number of police officers on the street that we need (is a good idea) at a time when violent crime…is a concern. Cyber crime is a concern. Threats to security in the city is a concern…So what I’m doing is an approach that is careful, that is responsible, that is very determined to make the budget different but isn’t a rash approach.”

Tory has put together a task force to find efficiencies on the police service.

(Click here to watch the video on mobile)

The costs of policing make up the biggest part of the city’s $10-billion operating budget. Salaries make up for 90 per cent of the police budget, and cutting back on officers is politically sensitive.

A letter to councillors by Saunders and Toronto Police Services Board chair Andy Pringle states: “We have seen an increase in violent crime in recent months.”

Toronto is not the only city struggling with the growing costs of policing. According to the Ontario Association of Police Services Board, over the last 15 years, police salary increases in the province have been more than double the rate of inflation.