The Pay Raise Gamble

Police officers and their managers have always had a comfy, cocoon like existence —somewhat removed from the economic up and down and cycles of the “real” world. Profit, loss and the measurement of productivity is an anathema to the world of policing.

They have often been able to “social distance” itself from the the pettiness and give and take of pesty budget concerns. “Cutbacks” during the last few decades, and especially in the RCMP has never really been in the policing lexicon.

To be sure there were years where in the “police universe” the Mounties received the short end of the stick, falling behind some of the bigger municipalities, at least for short periods of time. In the end, the Mounties were almost always dragged up the wage ladder by the other unionized forces across Canada. 

There was a time when the Federal government “froze” the wages of government workers, but that time is lost to the institutional memory of this group of officers. But for the most part, time was always on their side and the Mounties were able to live off the others. Their “universe” was a close orbit, made up of only other police agencies. When given to complain, the RCMP officers were only forced to an easy comparison. Any higher wage was justified by pointing to those other cops on the other side of the street. If they got a raise, you got a raise.

Quite naturally, there was no comparison to the economic worlds around them—those who were paying the freight. To be fair, the lack of caring or understanding of the general population mood is a characteristic of all government. Mounties policing in small towns were unfazed and unconcerned about the local budgets in terms of wages and salaries, their vision solely focused on the universal wage for police that was being determined in Ottawa. There was a constant and repetitious cry for new officers whenever a a detachment commander appeared before city counsel and never would it be couched in terms of concern for an overall budget. 

This all may be about to change.

Bankruptcy is now facing various governments on all three levels. The blame for these financial circumstances which have been thrust upon them, points directly at the “fight” against the “virus”.

Albeit, these same governments have cheered on the Federal government and their daily largesse. Every level of politician during this time had only one concern when pressed and that was to keep the electorate consoled. Only the truly brave offered up any question as to the need to be fiscally responsible.

So as the CERB cheques and business loans were shotgunned out to those in need, the deficit balloon rose to unrecognizable levels. The fiscal hammer above the political heads across the country got raised up further every day. And as gravity tells us, that hammer will eventually come down. The economic light will be shining very brightly on the unbridled spending in the next few months, and the glow from the economic fallout may be lasting for many years. 

Even before the “virus”, this blogger wrote several months ago, about the revelation that the Ontario government and various Ontario municipalities were trying to come to grips with budget shortfall issues and in particular with the growth of police budgets. The “ratcheting” of police and fire budgets was finally reaching levels where they began to get noticed. 

Defending the spending, fell to the age old axiom of the need for “public safety”. This tired and repetitious explication is now being seriously questioned for the first time in many years.

A number of police departments have three year Constable pay levels which have breached that psychological barrier of $100,000 and Police and fire services continue to grow at levels beyond the reach of the general population where salaries have stagnated for the last number of years. Police and fire budgets as a portion of municipal and provincial budgets is now the elephant in the hearing room.  

Tremors of anxiety are beginning to vibrate through the policing world as the word “cutback” is seeping in, gradually, but now discussed as an imaginable option.

This nervousness and angst finally touched down in the lotus land capital of Vancouver. This is happening in a city where government decidedly leans to the left and spends money on the services of the downtown Eastside like drunken sailors on shore leave. Although, it should not be totally surprising or unexpected when this is the same government which views whale-watching and the dispensing of cannabis edibles as suitable economic replacements for lumber or the building of gas pipelines. 

That aside, the City of Vancouver now finds itself facing a $152 million shortfall (Surrey is facing a $42 million shortfall as a comparison). The loss of jobs and shuttered businesses drying up revenues. Many argue that the full economic destruction has yet to be felt in this City of the Dispossessed.  

The other cognizant point which needs to be included in this discussion– the City of Vancouver has a legally dictated obligation to balance the budget. 

Canada’s third largest city has an overall budget of $1.6 billion. The Vancouver City Police now make up 21% of that overall budget with an annual expenditure of $340.4 million. And the greatest portion of the Vancouver city police budget is for salaries. 

To meet this $150 million shortfall the City of Vancouver has already proposed a very substantial increase of 8.2% in property taxes.

During this time they had also written to the Vancouver City police board to ask that they come up with proposals for  possible budget cuts. That was on April 14, 2020. OnApril 27th, the Police Board responded but didn’t offer any spending cuts. So City counsel imposed a 1% pay cut in the police budget, which amounted to a $3.5 million cut out of the $340 million pie for the remainder of 2020. 

They also directed, maybe more significantly, that the Vancouver Police Board in their pursuit of collective agreements with all of the three involved unions at the Police Department— that there will be  a stipulated 0% increase in 2020.  

Now, it would seem to most observers’ and probably the taxpayers of Vancouver that the proposed cuts and their proportion to the overall budget are in fact quite reasonable under these financial circumstances. But predictably, Chief Adam Palmer felt that the cuts were disastrous and went to the media with his complaint. 

What did he offer up as his major concern? 

Well “public safety” of course.

“Public safety”according to Chief Palmer was now once again in jeopardy due in part to the increase in “anti Asian racism complaints” that the Vancouver City Police were needing to now handle in the age of the virus. 

Well, it least it shows some politically correct astute thinking on behalf of the Chief, but no one is going to believe that the few cases  or a rise in commercial break-ins which have emerged have pushed this City department to the precipice. 

He also argued that City counsel did this without further conferences with him; he did not mention that he had been given opportunities to get involved in the cutbacks— but maybe being in that police cocoon may have thwarted his belief that someone would dare to cut his employees. (It should be pointed out that the Fire Department, which is always aware of its political surroundings, voluntarily made their own cutbacks.)

The Vancouver City Police union predictably also chimed in. They said that with the cutbacks and the disintegrating morale, many officers may choose to leave for the upcoming new police force in Surrey. The fact that Vancouver City could lose a number of officers to the proposed new Force is a bit of a red herring, as it is already being planned in the VPD that even outside of any budget complaints– they are going to lose a number of officers to Surrey. 

Some sources tell me that the management of the VPD are planning on the possibility that they could lose up to 200 officers to the new agency.

The ripple effect of this Surrey agency is also going to impact dramatically with the Cities of West Vancouver, Delta, and New Westminster PD’s, but that is for another blog.  

So where does this place the new union of the RCMP as they start building their case with Treasury Board for a 17% pay increase nationally. They are normally not encumbered by any sense of fiscal fallout, but along comes the damned Corona virus. The monkey wrench has now clearly been thrown into the cozy often egocentric policing world. 

It is one thing for the Federal government to feel that the Mounties need or should get a pay raise. Clearly the Liberal government is in a spending mood, so maybe Mr Trudeau will extend his daily giveaways. A 17% increase seems like a stretch at the best of times but under these depression/recession times it may be a little much to swallow all in one gulp for any government. 

But the biggest flaw in this large increase is not the willingness of the Federal government, it is that almost all of the raise would be simply pushed on to the municipalities and Provinces. At most the Feds would only have to pay 30% of that raise for those involved in contract policing. The rest, up to 90% in the case of Burnaby, or Coquitlam, has to be paid by the municipalities. As the municipal agencies are already crying to the Federal government for further financial support because of the virus burden, they would be incensed to have another huge expenditure thrust on them. 

So this leaves the Feds in a rather difficult and untenable position. Nor is it an easy one for the new leadership of the Mountie union. Now no longer needing to prostrate themselves before Treasury Board, but now facing some extraordinary budget considerations.

In terms of the policing structure in the Lower Mainland, and in the rural Provincial contracts, managers may be looking over the precipice of a significant re-structuring of the policing dynamics throughout this country. It’s possible that the virus will also be the catalyst that will re-awaken talks of Provincial forces, a Federal government RCMP/FBI, and regional police forces. 

 It could also mean– dare it be said,  “cutbacks”. 

For the younger RCMP officers, just like their Vancouver counterparts, their future may be the new Surrey PD, the same group recently lampooned by the Mountie union.

The next 12 months will be telling. The Mounties will build their case, no doubt continually underlining their current standing in the police universe and equally predictable, will be arguing “public safety”; striving for that instant 17% increase.

But, if you were gambling on the bet of a substantial RCMP raise, an odds maker may be telling you to now to “take the under”.

Photo Courtesy of Eric Flexyourhead via Flickr Commons – Some Rights Reserved

3 thoughts on “The Pay Raise Gamble

  1. Good point Peter about taking the under . . . like under the bus!

    28 years ago the pay freeze ended and after saving the government/force $330,000,000.00 the raise gave back just over 10% of that with a 2.75% raise. Lovely . . . just lovely!

    Not only that but my pension flattened out and that will affect me for the rest of my life. If they could do that then why can’t they do the same with Covid-19?

    Mel

    >

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  2. As a Student of History I would mention an event in Canadian Policing History which led directly to “The Police Universe” inasmuch as pay equity WAS concerned. On 7 OCT 69 the Montreal City Police held a “Study Session” and withdrew their services over their unsuccessful attempts to achieve parity with the Toronto City Police. What followed was a nightmare of very serious criminal activity culminating in the shooting death of a Quebec Provincial member. That night the Quebec National Assembly held an emergency sitting to legislate the Montreal City police back into service. At midnight on 8 OCT 69 the Montreal City Police returned to work.

    The die had been struck. Politicians of all stripes and from all regions of the Country had witnessed what they had never seen before and they did not want to see again. By 1974 police salaries had roughly doubled across Canada, the RCMP were in the process of compensating for Overtime and “The Police Universe” was born.

    For the Force to be in the pay position it is now in is a disgrace. I wonder if “The RCMP Strike of 2021” will be a chapter of Canadian Policing History?

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  3. Hi Peter,

    Very thoughtful column but I have a few thoughts; we ( being the RCMP) have been frozen since April 2016 and have slowly sunk behind almost everyone else in Canada. You’re correct in that police forces have long been immune to the economic realities afflicting the private sector but that’s the case of most public sector workers. The NPF is dreaming if they think Treasury Board will go for a 17% increase; any increase will be unpalatable for the municipal and provincial contracts. If the RCMP bows out of provincial and municipal policing, this will be the underlying cause.

    And then there’s this:
    https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/rcmp-facing-systemic-sustainability-challenges-due-to-provincial-policing-role-1.4952188

    I started in E Div and recall very well the pay freeze Mr. Chrétien and Martin imposed on the federal workforce; we caught up in the early 2000’s but the DRAP of 2012 imposed on us by M. Harper was deadly to federal policing. The public is finally starting to notice that the RCMP contracts are being maintained by starving the federal side of the RCMP. I believe the Virus pandemic just brought to the forefront the problems the have bedeviled this outfit for the past 20 years.

    Great column,
    Regards,
    Vince

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