When the police services board brought its meeting to the Niagara-on-the-Lake council chamber Thursday, it heard a bit of a mixed message from two local politicians.
“This town of ours is very proud of the police services and the police services board,” said Lord Mayor Pat Darte In his official welcome to the members of the Niagara Regional Police board. The fact that the board chose Niagara-on-the-Lake to hold one of its regularly scheduled meetings, Darte said, “makes the residents feel proud and that they're taken care of.”
The police services board has chosen to hold two off-site meetings in Niagara communities each year to promote awareness of its role, and for board members to stay in touch with community concerns of policing issues. The meetings are meant to help the board be “proactive in engaging, educating and hearing from by the public,” an invitation to the meeting said. Members of the public, council members and community groups were invited to attend, speak and ask questions.
Darte told board members they may “occasionally” have heard comments of NOTL having only two officers in town, but added, “we know we have lots of officers available to us. They come when they're needed.”
The police services and board may sometimes get “a bad rap” in NOTL, he said, but “we know and most of the residents know we're well taken care of.”
He mentioned an incident in Virgil a year ago when there was a situation which required police assistance, “and in 10 minutes we have 30 police in town. We're served very, very well.”
The issue, though, Coun. Jim Collard pointed out later in the meeting, is that as good as the service is, NOTL pays too much for what it receives. As a Town councillor now retiring from municipal politics, Collard has been campaigning for more than a decade to change the cost of police services based on assessment, as it is now, to a per-household fee. In a presentation that could have been considered his swan song, he told the board NOTL is the prettiest town in the world, and the safest town in the Region. “We clearly don't have crime issues very often. But when we do, I'm glad you're here with your team to raise the bar,” he said, making it clear he was not criticizing the police service. “Every one of your officers respond, as needed, and they respond in a friendly and professional way, in order to help us get through our challenges.”
Although the town has the lowest crime rate, and the lowest number of calls in the region, “every call is important,” he said.
“When the police come to NOTL, they will always do the best they can, and that's wonderful to know.”
But as a long-standing board member of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, Collard said he has listened over the years to the discussions which have led to a new way of determining the cost of police services to municipalities which employ the Ontario Provincial Police. The province, within each of its OPP detachments, now ensures every community, and every household, with very few exceptions, pays the same amount of money, “because police services are like apples, not apples and oranges. When you get a call in NOTL or Port Colborne, the police are going to be there and do the job well,” he said.
But neither AMO or the Province has extended that discussion to cover regional police services, he said.
“I challenge this board to be a voice, to take a look at the formula that's funding the OPP families, and do it here.”
NOTL has three percent of the population of the region and about two percent of the crime, he said, “and yet we're paying 12 percent of the cost across the region. That's just not fair. It's not fair to our householders.”
NOTL has access to the same services as St. Catharines, he pointed out. Grimsby, West Lincoln and Pelham also pay more than they should for those same services, he said, and probably, as rural communities, have fewer calls. “There's got to be a better way, a more fair way.”
When needed, the police come out and do the job, and do it well. “I'd never be critical of the people on the front line of the police force because they're all professionals,” he said.
“We talked to various communities around the region and we've talked to the Region but clearly there is a mindset we've got to get through. We've never chatted to the police services board. You have a voice, and a role to play in this.”
He asked the board to take a look at a model that works, that's been adopted across the province with a five-year phase-in, “and bring it home. Your officers will still make the same amount of money.”
“That's my only request – will this police services board take this issue and begin the discussion to move it forward?”
“No,” board chair Bob Gale quickly cut in to answer Collard's question. “That's not our mandate. It's not what we do.”
It's up to the Province, or the Region, to determine the funding model, he said.
“I'd be moving on as chair pretty quick if I brought this up at the board,” Gale said. “It's not our duty to arrange the funding.”
Collard said he's talked to the Region, “but the Region hasn't done it's job.”
David Barrick, a Regional councillor representing Port Colborne and a member of the police board, explained why some municipalities wouldn't support Collard's request. While Collard has been consistent on this issue for his community, it would be inconsistent with other local municipalities, Barrick said. “There may be winners and losers” in the current system, “but the model just shifts the winners and losers.”
In the current model based on assessment, if the average house price in a municipality is valued at $1 million, the municipality pays a percentage, or if it's valued at $250,000, the municipality pays a percentage of that. “Some would view that as fair,” said Barrick.
“It is a never-ending battle to try to find fairness,” finished Collard. “Maybe the Region needs to step up and do its job.”