Police funding a contentious issue as council prepares to make decisions on 2022 budget

City council will continue deliberating the 2022 operating and capital budgets this week, and Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has asked councillors to bring their amendments for both to the next budget meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 14.

One of the major items so far is the police budget, an issue that Edmontonians who participated in Taproot's People's Agenda project indicated was especially important to them, in light of the public hearings into racism and policing that led to the creation of the Community Safety and Well-Being Task Force.

Police Chief Dale McFee, who presented to council on the police budget last week and took questions, wants to see the Edmonton Police Service continue with the funding formula that the previous council approved (which guarantees an increase each year based on population growth and inflation). The city spends about 15% of its annual $3-billion budget on policing, and the current proposed property tax increase of 1.8% includes 0.7% for the police service.

McFee pointed to a need to continue making Edmonton safer by reducing crime and other social issues, while councillors raised questions about priorities like balance and overall financial sustainability in the capital and operating budgets. They also questioned McFee on how to measure results.

"I'm eight years in and I still don't know how to measure if we're getting the results that we need," said Coun. Andrew Knack. "I don't know what metrics we should be using, I don't know how to determine if we're getting good value for money, and I'm struggling with this as I have been for years … how do we finally create clear measures that we can follow and track?"

Taproot's Speaking Municipally broke down the police budget discussion in its latest episode, with co-hosts Mack Male and Troy Pavlek weighing in on the expected outcome.

"I don't think we're going to get a (police budget) decrease. I think at best, we're going to get a freeze," said Male. "I think what council is going to say is, 'We have this report coming back next year on some alternatives to the EPS funding formula.' ... I think they're probably going to be keen to wait for that before they make any large changes."

The report in question is in response to the 14th recommendation from the task force in its Safer for All report, calling for police funding to be brought in line with comparable cities and a portion of it be tied to specific performance. It also recommends reinvesting the savings into social services and "other community safety ecosystem needs." The report is expected back in the first quarter of 2022.

An Edmonton police vehicle, with Christmas lights in the background

The Edmonton police budget will be considered this week as part of a larger discussion about the 2022 city operating and capital budgets. (Mack Male/Flickr)

One of the Taproot Survey questions asked candidates ahead of the fall municipal election what should be done about the police budget. Mayor Sohi, and councillors Keren Tang, Ashley Salvador, and Jo-Anne Wright all said it should be frozen until it falls in line with other comparable cities.

"I don't believe in this philosophy that you need to defund one service in order to properly fund the other service," Sohi told Speaking Municipally after he was elected.

Councillors Erin Rutherford, Anne Stevenson, and Michael Janz wanted to see the police budget decreased somewhat, and no one said they favoured defunding the police altogether. Meanwhile councillors Jennifer Rice and Tim Cartmell both said the budget should be increased as determined by the funding formula.

Knack said he did not have a position on the issue, but said in a statement to Taproot after filling out the survey that he believes "one of the possible outcomes is to still use the formula but add in other programs and services that focus on prevention. So instead of a single large increase to policing, money would be spread out between social programs as well as policing."

Karen Principe did not fill out the survey.

While it's still unclear how the now-elected councillors will vote this week, or what amendments may be presented, the police budget will almost certainly continue to be a contentious issue into 2022.

"I think what we'll get is a lot of subsequent motions, a lot of requests for reports, things that next year will allow them to make more significant shifts on the police budget," said Pavlek.

Episode 159 of Speaking Municipally also covers bike lanes and traffic safety — find it below. And don't miss the Dec. 17 episode featuring a game of Jeopardy with contestants Don Iveson (former mayor of Edmonton), Naheed Nenshi (former mayor of Calgary), and Tara Veer (former mayor of Red Deer).