Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders says there’s nothing wrong with giving taxpayer-funded gift cards and free days off to employees who agreed to make tax-deductible contributions to the United Way.
“There’s nothing wrong with giving incentives. Companies do it, it’s nothing new, so to make this a flash point, it’s not a flash point,” Saunders told Global News in an interview at police headquarters Monday.
The practice, which the police service acknowledges has been going on for years, offered weekly draws for $100 gift cards between Sept. 26 and Nov. 28.
In addition, police service employees who donated to the United Way were entered into grand prize draws. Those five prizes included three days off, two days off, one day off, and two prizes of a half day off.
Global News was given a copy of an advertising poster in early December showing the incentives, which the department acknowledged was authentic.
On Monday, the service’s United Way campaign held a public thank you event at police headquarters, where it presented the United Way with a cheque for more than $412,000 — the total raised in this year’s employee campaign.
When Saunders was asked why employees need to be incentivized with time off, he replied: “Shame on you if you’re going to turn a good news story into a bad news story.”Pushed to elaborate, Saunders dimissed the reporter, saying “you’re trying too hard to make something out of nothing.”
The cost of the taxpayer-funded incentive ranges between $4,000 to $8,000 or more, including the cost of the lost wages, the $1,000 cash for draws and possible overtime to replace an officer being given extra time off. That cost would vary depending on the police employee’s salary.
The head of the union representing 8,000 officers and civilian members says the program has “a value.”
“It’s just a thank you, it’s not an incentive,” said Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association.
“It’s giving some people time off … they’re not being paid to contribute … it’s just a way to say thank you.”
The CEO of the United Way of Toronto and York Region was asked whether he supports the use of public money to raise money for his charity.
“As long as people are doing legal things, as they are, we value the impact they’re making on the ground every day,” said Daniele Zanotti.
“We value the time, talent and the treasure that Torontonians give every year. Toronto and York Region is the largest United Way campaign in the world.”
Asked by Global News if the police service will discontinue the incentive program next year, the police chief walked away without answering.
The police service has presented an operating budget of $1.1 billion for next year and is under pressure to reduce costs.
WATCH: Toronto police offered time off in exchange for donations to local charity (Dec. 5)