Motion to take planned budget hike from Ottawa police, give to public health unit fails

A motion that would've seen a planned $4.3-million increase to the Ottawa Police Services' budget in 2021 given to Ottawa Public Health failed at city council on Wednesday. File / Global News

An attempt at Ottawa City Council to reduce the planned budget levy increase for the police service and accordingly hand the funding off to the local public health unit has failed, with the mayor promising to work to find money for Ottawa Public Health elsewhere in the 2021 budget.

Capital Coun. Shawn Menard put forward a motion at Wednesday’s council meeting that would have seen the planned increase to the Ottawa Police Service’s 2021 budget levy capped at 1.5 per cent as opposed to the planned three per cent.

The difference — worth roughly $4.3 million, according to city staff estimates — would then be passed on to Ottawa Public Health, which is currently proposed to see a 2.5 per cent hike in its levy in next year’s budget, which would translate to an extra $980,000 with a 1.5 per cent growth assessment increase included.

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He noted that the proposal does not call for an outright reduction in OPS funding, just a “more modest” increase than was originally proposed.

Menard argued that the trade-off is warranted given the challenges OPH is facing during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, said earlier in Wednesday’s meeting that OPH is strapped for resources, leading the public health unit to prioritize of contact tracing to high-risk individuals who test positive for the virus and forcing the cancellation of some of its non-COVID activities, such as dental or sexual health clinics.

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who seconded Menard’s motion, said the reallocation of funds would help to eliminate many of the concerns police are called to address in their ward, such as the effects of drug addiction and homelessness.

While they have seen the deployment of a neighbourhood resource team (NRT) in their ward to build better relationships between the community and the police, they said the demands for mental health support are a much higher priority for them.

“I would take five mental health workers in this ward over an NRT any day,” they said.

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Diane Deans, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, said she believed the motion was “well-intentioned,” but disagreed with the “tool.”

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She acknowledged that incidents in recent months have shaken confidence in the Ottawa police — Menard would later read off a series of headlines maligning officer behaviour on topics ranging from racial profiling to corruption and threats — but said that hampering the force’s funding would affect efforts to reform the OPS.

She highlighted OPS Chief Peter Sloly’s three-year plan to restructure the Ottawa police and noted items in the board’s upcoming budget deliberations will include hiring more sexual assault investigators focused on helping Indigenous women, implementing more NRTs and continuing efforts to promote diversity and inclusion within the force.

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Deans contended that restricting the OPS’s 2021 budget would affect Sloly’s ability to reform the force, with Mayor Jim Watson later saying that the proposed motion would “completely undermine the chief.”

“A simple budget reduction is not going to take us where we all need to go,” Deans said.

Multiple councillors expressed discomfort with the motion as “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” but Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper noted that councillors are always asked to find funding for new projects by finding equivalent savings elsewhere in the city’s coffers.

Keith Egli, chair of the OPH board, said the board has not yet begun its budget deliberations, though the demand for extra resources amid the pandemic has been clear.

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Rather than tying a hike in OPH funding to a respective decrease in the police budget, Egli said he might look to amend the motion to bring the public health unit’s planned increase to three per cent next year, an addition of roughly $116,000 more than the current proposal.

Watson took exception with the idea, as without a proposal to offset the hike, the amendment would require a tax increase higher than the three-per cent target.

He also said he didn’t want to let the province “off the hook” for its responsibility to fund a portion of OPH’s operations. The mayor suggested Ontario could reduce its contributions if the municipal budget already responded to the public health unit’s annual demands.

Instead, he said he would work with Egli and city staff to find extra money for OPH amid the budget process over the next month.

“We will work with Ottawa Public Health to ensure they have the necessary resources to do the work they’re entitled to,” Watson said.

Menard’s motion was defeated in a vote: four yeas to 20 nays.

A later motion on Wednesday afternoon saw Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, who was named council’s liaison for anti-racism and ethnocultural relations earlier this year, take Watson’s spot on the Ottawa Police Services Board.

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King voted against Menard’s motion on Wednesday, indicating his support for Chief Sloly’s restructuring plans and the need for additional funding to realize those efforts.

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