Last week, Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services announced it will begin a series of “engagement sessions” to seek input from municipalities about a “proposed new model for billing municipalities for OPP policing services.” But for Henry de Young, chair of the St. Marys Police Services Board (PSB), the initiative fails to address the true challenges soon to be faced by municipalities across the province.
De Young was commenting on the day after the Sebringville-based Perth County detachment of the OPP moved its so-called "Community Policing Office" in St. Marys from one Town-owned building to another. In keeping with a decision earlier this year by Town Council — which, in turn, was acting on a recommendation from the PSB — the CPO was relocated from upper level of the Post Office building on Wellington Street South to the lower level of Town Hall with a doorway off Church Street North.
The change of location does not translate into any service changes at the CPO. As has been the case since the PSB voted to downgrade its level of service in 2010 as a cost-saving measure, the public has not had access to the police facility in St. Marys, and no administrative staff has been employed there.
Anyone walking into the lower-level Town Hall space — which also houses the Town's finance department — while the door is open during business hours will encounter a locked OPP door, as well as an OPP telephone on the wall. That telephone isn’t linked to the interior line, but rather to the OPP’s communications office in London.
However, if someone knocks on the OPP door, it’s possible an officer will respond.
“If there’s an officer in the office, they may come out and speak to the person,” explained Acting Detachment Commander, Inspector Joel Skelding.
De Young noted, however, that “just because there’s a cruiser out front doesn’t mean there’s an officer inside. They may be out on foot patrol, or out with another officer.”
Skelding clarified that no prisoners are taken into the Community Policing Office. They’re generally taken to Sebringville. The purpose of the office, aside from the public relations aspect of giving the OPP a profile in the town, is to conduct administrative work. Mainly, that involves paperwork or phone calls; occasionally, an officer may interview a witness inside the office.
Considering the looming challenge of a renewal of the contracts between the OPP and PSBs across the province, it's unlikely there will be consideration in the near future for any expansion on the level of OPP service in St. Marys.
According to an Oct. 3 news Ministry news release, the proposed new model for informing municipalities about what they pay for OPP service will “be based on the principles of fairness and transparency that municipal leaders have said are most important to them; provide municipalities with important data to help tailor crime prevention strategies in their communities; and reflect the Auditor General’s recommendation to create a simpler billing model that gives municipalities more control over policing costs.”
Speaking to the Journal Argus later that day, de Young said that, through his participation in the Ontario Association of Police Service Boards (OAPSB), he was aware that the Ministry was considering changes in the information provided to municipalities regarding their OPP coverage.
“There have been complaints that it’s hard to understand exactly how we’re being charged. It seems to be opaque,” the St. Marys PSB chair said.
He added, however, that the transparency initiative “is not very new . . . When I was at the fall 2012 conference of the OAPSB, this was introduced.” At that time, OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis released a document entitled “Understanding OPP Municipal Policing Costs.” So last week’s government announcement for consultation sessions comes a year after the initiative really got underway.
More importantly, de Young suggested, increasing transparency about the OPP contracts fails to address what will surely be a more significant challenge for municipalities within a year — the conclusion of a five-year deal between the provincial government and the union representing OPP officers.
Ratification of the most recent deal came in 2010, and wasn’t achieved until the union agreed to a five-year salary freeze. But that came only after the province committed to opening up salaries once the five years are complete, and adjusting officers’ pay to reflect the highest-paid police force in the province.
“In effect, there’s a catch-up written into the deal,” de Young explained.
“The model that the government has is for cost recovery. The province does not subsidize municipalities for police services . . . Since (salary costs) are passed on (to municipalities), many towns are worried about what 2014 will bring.”
The mayor of Tillsonburg has been at the forefront of an ongoing lobby to have the province address what he sees as the inadequate nature of the OPP/provincial government model.
“For the municipalities that don’t have to pay so much, perhaps that’s okay. But for some of the other ones, they’d like to see things change,” de Young said.
In his opinion, however, it comes down to the diversity of the 324 communities served by the OPP. Not only are there various sizes of population and land mass, but the economic realities also vary significantly throughout Ontario. A region that relies heavily on tourism will require a different model of service compared to an area in which the economy is driven by resource extraction or heavy industry, or where the economy is suffering in general.
“It seems to me, there’s an element of fairness to a model in which a municipality pays a different rate when they don’t require the same set of services from the police.”
He agrees, however, that the 2014 renewal of the contracts will be a significant challenge to all municipalities served by the OPP. And last week’s announcement of the Ministry’s plan to reassess the transparency of the contracting model offers little comfort.
“(Ministry officials) are not saying they’re going to bring down the bill. What they’re saying is that they’ll explain it to us better now, how they come up with the bill.
“Meanwhile, as far as reducing costs, that’s not likely to happen.”