VANCOUVER — The union representing Vancouver's police officers joined the police chief Thursday in criticizing a budget cut passed by city council, arguing their services shouldn't be reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
City council passed a motion Wednesday to reduce the police department's $314 million budget by one per cent, equating to about a $3.5 million budget cut.
The Vancouver Police Union estimates that could rise to $8.5 million depending on the outcome of arbitration related to a collective bargaining agreement.
About 27 per cent of the city's revenue is spent on police services.
"These are really tough discussions we're having and it's a result of our revenue loss," Mayor Kennedy Stewart told a news conference on Thursday. "We've had negotiations with the other unions about how we can at least slow down further layoffs or postpone them and this is just another one of those discussions."
Police officers are already expressing worries over the proposed cuts, said union president Ralph Kaisers.
"Our members are concerned. My phone has exploded today with concerns and comments," he said. "Now's not the time for cuts."
In a statement, police Chief Adam Palmer criticized the secretive nature of the cuts, which were debated in an in-camera meeting.
"There was zero consultation with the Vancouver Police Board, VPD, or any VPD unions on the motion itself and how it will affect the safety and security of Vancouver residents," Palmer said.
Palmer said city, library and park board layoffs were related to a decline in demand for services, which isn't the case for the police.
Stewart acknowledged the work Vancouver's police force does, but argued the cuts are the result of the financial fallout the city is facing.
"I think all of us are aware how essential police are during times of crisis and I think people would also recognize that the city is under significant financial challenges and we have to find a way forward that best works for everybody," Stewart said.
The police department recently returned to 2009 staffing levels, while Vancouver's population has increased by 11 per cent, the police board's finance committee chairman wrote in a letter to city council before the motion was approved.
"Any service reductions would have a disproportionate negative impact to such a marked degree that these impacts would outweigh the potential savings that could be achieved," Barj Dhahan wrote.
Another factor complicating budget cuts is the creation of a new police department in nearby Surrey to replace the RCMP with Vancouver facing an "impending threat" to retaining its officers, Dhahan added.
Kaisers agrees the creation of a new force in Surrey is a factor for Vancouver's police officers.
"There's going to be a great opportunity in a new organization with chances for advancement that they maybe wouldn't have had there," said Kaisers, who estimated that a few hundred of the union's members could leave for the new force.
The city says the pandemic has resulted in a 27 per cent drop in business revenues, with 13,400 businesses closing down and 90,000 jobs lost in April.
Council says a revenue loss of $152 million is projected for the city and it's required by law to balance its books.
Stewart reiterated his call for more funding from the provincial and federal governments.
City council will look for ways of helping businesses reopen with an added emphasis on plans that help women and seniors because those groups have been hit harder than others by the pandemic, Stewart said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2020.
Nick Wells, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version based on information provided by the city said Vancouver has seen a $27 billion drop in business revenues.