Police funding increases could be locked in before budget talks

· The Pulse

City council may end up locking in a funding formula for the Edmonton Police Service budget before the 2023-2026 budget deliberations begin, despite a stated desire to consider the police budget in the context of all the city's expenses.

A draft funding formula is going before council on Oct. 3. It sets the base budget at $407 million per year, starting in 2023, as approved by city council in a 12-1 vote on June 7.

Although the June motion from Coun. Jennifer Rice to develop a new funding formula asked for a draft to return "for approval as part of the 2023-2026 operating budget deliberations," administration has recommended that city council approve the revised funding formula now, well before the 2023-2026 budget deliberations get underway.

It projects an annual hike equivalent to a 0.4% increase to the tax levy for each of the next four years. It's not clear from the documents what that means in terms of dollars, but Postmedia reported the increase next year would be $7 million.

Earlier this year, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi indicated in a blog post that he had concerns about approving the police budget separately from other budget items.

"A funding formula with automatic increases does not allow Council to consider police funding alongside all other budget lines in any given year," he wrote. "With the EPS budget representing nearly a quarter of your property tax bill, I think it is incredibly important that Council understands the value of what we pay for before locking-in increases to the largest line item year-over-year."

By providing EPS with a predictable level of funding for each year of the next four-year budget cycle, the formula is intended to address the financial impacts of population growth and inflation.

But the proposed formula does not account for any change in funding from the provincial or federal governments. That's a problem because a projected $22 million drop in provincial funding from photo radar means the true cost to the Edmonton taxpayer will be significantly higher than the funding formula projects.

"I find that really deceptive, because that is not all the money we are going to have to use tax levy for to cover police costs," Coun. Erin Rutherford told Postmedia.

Chief Dale McFee speaks at a podium with a backdrop of Alberta and Canada flags

Chief Dale McFee of the Edmonton Police Service. (Government of Alberta)

The proposed funding formula is more prescriptive in many ways than the previous one (which was introduced in 2016 and later suspended in 2020 following three days of public hearings in response to the murder of George Floyd). For example, it requires city council to hold a non-statutory public hearing before making any changes to the funding formula. It also provides for a "budget-cycle true-up" every two years, where the most up-to-date inflation and population forecasts are used to recalculate — and retroactively adjust — the funding formula.

The only restriction in the proposed funding formula is that the ratio of the total EPS budget to the budget for civic operational departments cannot exceed 30% in any fiscal year. That figure was about 30% for 2022, given the $1.6 billion budget for operations. EPS can request additional funding at any time by submitting service packages for council's consideration.

Additionally, the proposed funding formula is not tied to any performance targets or metrics. Administration argues in the report that "regardless of the performance or effectiveness of policing, many metrics can trend in diverging directions due to factors outside of EPS' control."

No public engagement was conducted for the draft funding formula, nor was a gender-based analysis done, according to the report. Administration suggests that engagement and analysis completed in support of the Community Safety and Well-Being Strategy and framework informed the development of the draft funding formula.

A jurisdictional scan of police funding intended to give council a better understanding of how Edmonton compares to other similarly sized municipalities said the previous funding formula "appears to be serving the City of Edmonton, its police commission, and police service well."

That analysis looked at Calgary, Winnipeg, Regina, and Ottawa, as well as Peel Region and York Region in Ontario. It found that Edmonton spends significantly more per capita on policing each year, at $318 per person for tax-supported operations using a 10-year historical average from 2010 to 2020. That compares to $298 per person in Winnipeg, $283 per person in Ottawa, and just $218 per person in Calgary.

Despite the higher per-capita cost in Edmonton, the report emphasizes that Edmonton's cost-per-incident was relatively low. "On the whole, Edmonton's costs were lower than the comparator police services for all indicators other than costs/capita," the report says, and it indicates other municipalities would have spent less had they applied Edmonton's funding formula.

The jurisdictional scan was completed by the Community Safety Knowledge Alliance, a non-profit organization established in 2015. Edmonton police chief Dale McFee is the chair and president of the organization.

A spokesperson for the Edmonton Police Commission said there was no conflict of interest as a result of the relationship. "While Chief McFee serves with the Canadian Safety Knowledge Alliance (CSKA) as a volunteer, he had no financial interest or benefit from CSKA engaging in this work."

University of Alberta criminology professor Temitope Oriola disagreed. "I believe in most sectors of the economy this would be considered a clear and obvious conflict of interest," he told Postmedia. "I am flabbergasted that this organization got the contract to do this."

The report was written by Cal Corley, CEO of the CSKA. Corley and McFee began working together in 2009 when McFee was president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and Corley was an assistant commissioner at the Canadian Police College, Postmedia reported in 2019 when McFee was sworn in as Edmonton's new police chief.

"He's uniquely equipped and I'd say unparalleled in Canada in terms of the experiences and the knowledge base that he comes into this role in. You just don't see this in Canada," Corley said of McFee at the time. "But more than just being a visionary leader, (McFee) is one that has a proven track record of being able to execute on strategy."

The Edmonton Police Commission paid $21,861 as part of a cost-sharing arrangement with the Peel Region for the report, according to The Progress Report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the ratio in the funding formula compared the police budget to the overall city budget. In fact, it compares the police budget to the budget for operational departments at the City of Edmonton.