The Prince George RCMP will have less wiggle room this year following a council decision to trim their budget based on historical surplus figures.
On Monday afternoon, council unanimously decided to shave $1.2 million from the police protection budget and reallocate it elsewhere in the city's operating budget.
More than $880,000 will be added to the city's 2013 road rehabilitation budget, bringing this year's amount closer to $5 million. Money will also be directed to the parks budget for maintenance as well as to the new Mayor's Task Force on Crime.
Over the past six years, the police budget has posted an average surplus of $895,885 and Coun. Cameron Stolz saw that as an opportunity to manage city spending more tightly.
"I would like to stress again, this is not meant to be a cutting of the RCMP budget," he said. "The question now for this council is how we best use resources, how do we manage the money we have before us? Is there a way we could more closely align the budget we have for 2013 with what was actually spent in 2012?"
The new police budget of $20.4 million still represents an increase of $1 million from last year, of which Supt. Eric Stubbs said at least $600,000 is required to maintain the status quo.
"The community is expecting the same police level. The mayor and council have said do not change the level of police service. So, I won't," said Stubbs.
But maintaining the status quo is not the direction the city should be headed in when it comes to RCMP staffing levels. The budget funds 121 RCMP members and Stubbs said money for as few as five and as many as 16 more members would be a step in the right direction.
"We fundamentally have to change the way we fund the detachment," he said, adding in his capacity as superintendent he also needs to be more proactive in hiring.
Since 2003, the city has funded the police based on the amount of members expected to be in the detachment as opposed to how many they are contracted to have. He presented a chart that suggests a wide disparity between the force's contract strength of 128 members and the budgeted allowance for 2013 - which is closer to funding 109 members.
"Based on the chart and what we're doing by trying to project under the budget we're at I think we just need to be more aggressive to get those boots on the road and I have more flexibility to adapt to the chronic issues in the communities instead of trying to rob Peter to pay Paul by going to other units and taking them to give them other functions," said Stubbs, pointing to potential budget pressures stemming from having to launch a complex investigation or simply having less vacancies. "I think we're on the right track [with crime reduction initiatives], but I don't want to see us lose momentum."
But Stubbs also acknowledged he understood the RCMP would have "a target on their back" as a division that's consistently posting a surplus in times of fiscal pressure.
Those surpluses are the result of a number of factors, the most common being vacancies in high-paying positions as well as other salary savings due to members taking parental leave or off of work for more than 30 days for medical reasons.
"It's a concern, the trend that we have. Where we're funding less I think we need to fund more," said Stubbs.
The mayor and council did not see the change as a cut to the RCMP's operations.
"If I thought for one minute we were proposing the reduction of service in number of members I wouldn't support anything of that vein," said Coun. Dave Wilbur. "I see it like there's still a safety net there which is the surplus. And even if we were to pull something out in the sense of the budget, that can be remedied either by an amendment to the budget later in the year or access to the surplus that's there."
Mayor Shari Green also referenced a point made at a previous meeting by Coun. Murry Krause that it wasn't necessarily having more officers that reduced crime. She added that this reallocation is not likely something council will be looking at doing again next year.
Stolz agreed that no one was being punished for having a surplus in their department.
"We're not looking at somebody who is one time going to come under budget this year because of extenuating circumstances and expect to have their budget cut," he said, echoing a fear of Wilbur's where that type of thinking could lead to reckless spending. "What we're talking about here is a historical surplus that's been going on since at least 2007... in that perspective I think these are prudent investments."
Coun. Brian Skakun said he understood the police members have increased duties.
"There's no doubt the members are busy," he said. "This to me isn't about cutting RCMP services. You have our full support."
With the budget process complete, the city's finance and audit committee will begin discussing tax rates - what increase each class of property owner will pay - beginning March 4.