Toronto Police Chief Blair attempts to hold the line on costs

Members of Toronto’s police board say they’re optimistic about Chief Bill Blair’s proposed zero budget increase for 2015 – but wary because the most critical piece of the budget is yet to be determined.

The board met Thursday, where they approved an operating budget request from Chief Blair of $957.7-million, a zero per-cent increase over 2014. The request comes after years of tension between the board and the chief over costs, and marks the first time in his nine years as head of the force that the chief has not asked for at least a slight increase.

The request does not, however, take into account coming contract negotiations between the police union and the board before the contract expires at the end of the year – a major factor, as wages and benefits make up 90 per cent of the budget. Under the current agreement, employees have received around 2-per-cent and 3-per-cent wage hikes each year for the past four years.

“I think we have an absolute obligation to deliver policing services in the most efficient, effective and economical way possible,” Chief Blair said Thursday. He ends his term next year, after the board decided against renewing his contract – partly because of budget tensions.

Chief Blair also dismissed a report that his proposal to reduce the “established strength” – or maximum number of employees – might actually result in an increase of officers. Currently, there are about 5,275 officers in the force, although it is allowed to employ up to 5,505. By proposing the maximum instead be 5,462, Chief Blair said his intent is not to hire additional officers, but to remain at around 5,275.

“This budget is a status-quo budget,” he said.

At least two members of the seven-person board said the proposal is a step in the right direction.

“Maybe the work we’ve been doing for the past four years is finally starting to seep through,” Councillor Michael Thompson said. “But I suspect there’s an opportunity to drill in a little bit further.”

“I’m optimistic,” said Councillor Mike Del Grande. “This time around I think there’s the self-realization that things have been looked at a lot closer.”

But both Mr. Thompson and Mr. Del Grande acknowledged that Thursday’s decision is only one part of what will likely be a long process.

Mr. Del Grande described the current wage hikes as “unsustainable,” but said the problem would probably continue “because they have very strong unions and nobody wants to take on the police.”

Even after contract negotiations are completed, the budget will still have to go to the budget committee, and eventually, council.

“There’s no way that it’s a real zero,” said Mr. Thompson. “It has to be zero-plus.”

Meanwhile, mayor-elect John Tory, who met with Chief Blair on Wednesday, called the proposal promising.

“It’s a good start,” he said Thursday. “But we’re nowhere near finished with this process.”

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