Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Downloading" - Not Always a Bad Thing.

Well, it appears my five-year crusade on the issue of cost-sharing for major crime investigations is finally coming to an end.  By way of background, this is about the question of who pays the bill if the RCMP have to bring in major outside resources to investigate a big crime in our municipality.  The issue was first precipitated by an incident in Campbell River where, in 2009, they were hit with a huge  bill from the Province because a couple of bad guys from Surrey ended up in a gunfight in their community.  One of them died.  The Surrey Major Crimes unit was brought in to investigate, and Campbell River was stuck with the bill for a major investigation, not to mention feeding, housing, and overtime for dozens of “out of jurisdiction” officers who were in the community for several weeks.  A bill that ran into the millions of dollars.

Ever since then, I’ve been lobbying the Province to fix this; to put an end to a system which, if it were applied consistently, could have seen local taxpayers in Port Coquitlam face the entire cost of the Willie Picton investigation.  

And now we have our answer.  Earlier this month, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton introduced what amounts to a housekeeping bill in the Legislature.  The “Miscellaneous Statutes Amendments Act (Bill 4)”, makes some changes to existing legislation in four areas.  Agriculture, Energy and Mines, Natural Gas Development, and the Police Act.  By far the longest and most detailed section of the new legislation is focused on changes to the Police Act.  

It has taken me several weeks to get my hands on an actual copy of the Bill – and I want to publicly thank former Justice Minister Shirley Bond, whose staff graciously provided me with the link to the Bill this week after several technical hiccups that caused some undue delay.  (No one’s fault; these things happen.)  

And here, in one word, is how the Province is going to fix this.   “Download.”

Usually, for municipal politico’s like me, that word has nothing but negative connotations.  But in this case, it may actually make sense.  

Some context.  One of the things which we have been considering at North Cowichan is the idea of voluntarily making a contribution – either financial or in the form of the secondment of one of our RCMP members – to the “Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crimes Unit” (VIIMCU).  It’s that unit which would be the primary investigative resource in the event of a major crime here, and right now, we would be getting a substantial bill if they had to be called in.  Much like the Campbell River example above.   But our thinking was that if we are part of that Unit as a contributing, functioning “member”, it would effectively be an insurance policy against the kind of surprise bill that Campbell River received.  Then again, our financial contribution, (or the “member” we would be adding to the Unit), would also be put to use in criminal investigations outside of our jurisdiction.  Truly, this would be the epitome of a “shared resource.”  Participating municipalities would share the costs, the risks,and the benefits.

We pitched this idea to Ms. Anton at UBCM in Whistler back in September, and apparently the government is buying in.  But in a slightly different way than we had expected.  Our proposal would have seen voluntary partnerships.  Municipalities could – at their own discretion – either offer to step up and join one of these Major Crime Units (there’s about half a dozen of them spread throughout the Province), or they could opt to continue taking the risk of getting a big bill.

However, the Act that’s now been tabled takes away the “voluntary partnership” nature of our proposal.  The Province will have the express authority to say to individual municipalities “you will participate in your regional Major Crime Unit, and this is what it’ll cost you.”

The formula for allocating the costs, incidentally, will be determined by regulation sometime in the future.  I suspect it’ll be based on a number of factors including population, historic crime rates, and perhaps the assessed property values of the tax base in each municipality.

I’m of two minds on this.  As I identified earlier, this is the very definition of a “download.”  There is no doubt that forcing municipalities to participate in this venture will, in the long term, make policing more expensive for local taxpayers.  The Police Act amendments make very clear that paying the bills for participation in these major crime units will not be “optional” – it’ll be another one of those expenses over which local governments ultimately have no control.  And there's no doubt that the money for this will have to come from property taxes.  

On the other hand, this model puts an end to the guess-work.  Kevin Hewco, the former OIC of our local RCMP detachment, more than once admitted to me that he would sometimes have “sleepless nights” worrying about the notion that we might experience something like what happened in Campbell River; a “major crime” within our municipal boundaries which would potentially precipitate a seven-figure invoice from the Province.  You simply can’t budget for that kind of eventuality.  If nothing else, the model proposed by the Province provides some certainty. It gives us a predictable, stable funding model by taking away the surprise element in all of this. 

And we all need to acknowledge that these bills need to be paid somehow.  The real question is how that payment is distributed.  I used the example of the Willie Picton investigation earlier.  The fact is that those costs were paid for in a shared enterprise where each and every British Columbian chipped in through their Provincial taxes.  So was it fair for taxpayers in North Cowichan, (or Vanderhoof, or Dawson Creek), to be forced to pick up the bill for an investigation in PoCo? 

The way I read it, the model that Ms..Anton is proposing tries to strike a balance, potentially allocating out the costs on a “regional” basis.  Folks in Surrey, which has among the highest crime rates in the country, will be paying more for their police protection than people in Kamloops.  Or North Cowichan.  And that seems fair to me. 

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