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Editorial: Spend COVID cash on more cops, less taxes

City council could spend two-thirds of that provincial money - $4 million – and cut the proposed tax hike of 6.55 per cent down to three per cent, administration says.
City Hall
Prince George City Hall.

Lawyers are taught to never ask a question in court that they don’t already know the answer to because they might not like the response.

By the same token, Prince George city councillor Cori Ramsay should be careful about wanting city staff to prepare a report comparing policing costs among other B.C. municipalities. What if the report comes back and says Prince George doesn’t need four more cops, as Insp. Shaun Wright is asking for, but 24 more men and women in uniform?

Then what?

A similar scenario happened in Kelowna in 2019, when a report found Kelowna RCMP was seriously understaffed and needed to hire 37 more officers by 2025, a 20 per cent increase.

Ramsay challenged Wright why her research shows per-officer policing costs are dramatically less in Nanaimo. That is worth investigating but there is already data supporting Wright’s case. A B.C. government report released last fall shows Prince George had the third-highest number of Criminal Code offences in B.C. over the last two years, behind only Vancouver and Surrey. And a city report already shows the number of calls for police is up 22 per cent in the last five years. More calls and more serious calls than other communities, which is exactly what Wright told council, yet he is only asking for four more officers for this year.

There is an easy solution on the table for city council.

Turns out last year that the city didn’t need to spend a nickel of the $6.1 million the provincial government handed over in COVID relief, despite budgeting to spend half of it. The city cutting nearly $3 million from its operating budget is both a good and bad news story. The good news is the savings, but the bad news is it confirms what many residents have been saying for many years – that the City of Prince George had too many employees and too many unnecessary costs for too long.

City council could spend two-thirds of that provincial money - $4 million – and cut the proposed tax hike of 6.55 per cent down to three per cent, administration says. Wright would get the officers he asked for and council could avoid having to reject any of the other proposed spending increases.

If that looks like punting the problem down the road for the next city council, there’s still $2 million left over for 2023 and there’s a strong case to deal with today’s problem with the resources available today and tomorrow’s issues can wait until tomorrow. In other words, why can’t the city spend the entire $6 million now to lower the tax increase even further, knowing that residents are being slammed now with inflationary increases on food, fuel and other necessities?

That’s worth a debate.

In the meantime, follow through with Ramsay’s idea of a staff investigation this year on policing costs to give some clarity and options for next year’s budget. That way, there’s time to better prepare for whatever conclusions are reached by that report.