Global calls for defunding the police have made their way to New Westminster.
At a budget workshop on Monday afternoon, council considered draft capital and operating budgets, which proposed a 4.9% property tax increase in 2021. But instead of directing the finance department to prepare a financial plan that incorporated that increase, council voted four to three in support of Coun. Nadine Nakagawa’s motion to send the police budget back to the police board and ask it to submit a budget with a 0% increase for 2021.
“This motion came out of a response for demands for justice and for reform,” she said. “Those demands included demands that city councils not increase police budgets in the future and that we look at different ways of doing that work.”
While she recognizes the city needs partners from other levels of government to address police reform, Nakagawa said that work is “years down the road” and she can’t pretend she didn’t hear calls for action.
“I cannot support any increase to the police budget, recognizing even if it is the cost of increased wages, etc.,” said Nakagawa, who wanted all police staffing and initiatives funded out of its existing budget.
The New Westminster Police Department had a $31.6-million budget in 2020, with a $33.33-million budget proposed in 2021, an increase of $1.73 million. While annual wage increases and benefits account for the bulk of the increase, the draft budget also included $44,000 for personal protective equipment and naloxone to address COVID and opioid crises and $90,000 for a temporary full-time position required to support development and implementation of a diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism (DEIAR) framework and police board motions.
The police department’s budget initially included $100,000 for community engagement related to the DEIAR framework.
Lisa Spitale, the city’s chief administrative officer, noted that Chief Const. Dave Jansen indicated he has $30,000 in his department’s consulting budget that could be put toward the initiative.
Coun. Mary Trentadue said she doesn’t support trying to fit $100,000 worth of work into a $30,000 budget.
“This is extremely important work. This is work the city has been trying to do for many years,” she said. “I think that it is crucial that the police are involved in this work. That’s not the solution I am looking for.”
“I think that this work is crucial,” she said. “I guess it sounds perhaps like I am arguing two sides here. This work is crucial, and we want to get it right.”
To get it right, Nakagawa said the external consultants will be needed to do work on behalf of the police department.
“I suppose I am asking for savings within the police force,” she said before putting forward her motion.
The police department and the city are working with a consultant on developing a diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism (DEIAR) framework.
Jansen said the police department will be relying on the city for a lot of the work being done with this framework, but there are some “very unique things” related to policing.
“We just don’t have any funding anywhere else that we can find, short of cutting frontline resources to do that,” he said.
Councillors Trentadue, Patrick Johnstone and Jaimie McEvoy supported Nakagawa’s motion, while councillors Chinu Das and Chuck Puchmayr and Mayor Jonathan Cote were opposed.
Puchmayr said the proposed 0% increase is “sort of coming out of left field” as it hasn’t been raised in any of council’s budget workshops.
“This one of the most responsible police asks – or lack of asks – that I have seen,” he said of the police department’s proposed 2021 budget. “Also, when we did the survey of our community, this isn’t what they were asking for. There are many police organizations in North America that require something such as this; I don’t see this as a need in New Westminster.”
Nakagawa countered that the request “is not coming out of left field” and builds off of the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred around the world. While it’s “not comfortable” to have this conversation right now, she said she’s heard the call of activists to push this reform.
“This is not an attack on individual police officers,” she said. “This is an attack on systems that are not serving us and are not serving the marginalized in our community. … The fact is we need a different model, and this is the way to a different model.”
Trentadue said she can’t continue to support the status quo.
“It’s not about whether the work that is being done currently is good or not. It’s that this needs to change,” she said. “If we continue to fund these kinds of institutions, even at marginal increases, it’s still taking money that should go elsewhere and it doesn’t allow or encourage any kind of significant change or new ways of thinking.”
Das said she agrees policing reform is needed, but she couldn’t support the motion without knowing what services would replace those that are cut from the budget and having a broader discussion about what’s being proposed.
“I completely understand where the intentions are coming from; this is about making systemic change. I would be for it if I knew where we were going to make that change toward,” she said. “I don’t see any plan in place … apart from reducing the budget.”
So, what exactly does this move mean for the City of New Westminster’s 2021 budget and the New Westminster Police Department? That remains to be seen.
Cote, who spoke to the Record following the meeting, said New Westminster city council has never rejected a police board’s budget during his time on council, so he was trying to figure out the police board’s next steps.
“As I understand it, this will now go back to the police board to look to them to consider the budget request that has been made by council. I think the police board will look at options to consider that,” he said. “My understanding is, if there continues to be dispute between police board and city council regarding the police budget, it would then go to a body in the provincial government to make a decision on the police budget.”
If the police board finds ways to bring forward a 0% increase, Cote said the city’s proposed 4.9% tax increase may be reduced, but it’s “too early to tell” what the property tax implications would be.
“I think roughly we are looking at around $900,000 that is being requested,” he said. “What that would probably equate to is roughly about 1% in the taxes – ballpark.”
As part of its 2021 budget process, the city had planned to adopt its budget by the end of December, as that’s considered a best practice.
Cote expects council’s decision regarding the police budget to delay the 2021 budget process. He said the police board, which wasn’t scheduled to meet until January, will need time to consider the request.
Cote said the motion came as a bit of a surprise.
“Certainly I am well aware that council is very interested in the discussion about police reform,” he told the Record. “We have been engaged in budget workshops for over a month and this kind of direction hasn’t been raised by council. In that regard, I am a bit surprised it has come forward in the way it has.”
Cote, who is chair of the New Westminster police board, said the board was putting forward a “status quo” budget that included some enhancements to cover naloxone and to get some support from consultants for the work being done on diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism framework and police reform.
“Those were the only of additions on the budget,” he said. “But there is a number of other inflationary budget costs. Probably the big one is the salary increases annually that goes to members and civilian staff members at the police department. That is often a major driver, and was a major driver, in the police budget increase.”
Asked if council’s decisions means staffing cuts could be coming at the New Westminster Police Department, Cote said: “The scale at which council is requesting reductions in the police budget, I think it would be hard not to look at staffing levels.”
The decision also comes at a time when the City of Surrey is moving forward with plans to create a municipal police force.
“I think that will definitely be a bit of a concern to the police board,” Cote said. “I think the police board, just like council, has wanted to engage in the discussion about modernizing and reforming policing, but I think there will be concern that there doesn’t appear to be support for the work that our police do. I guess that could pose some challenges, particularly some of the recruiting issues with police. I think the police board is very supportive of the department and its members, and that will be a consideration as it works through this process.”
In related news, Nakagawa also put forward a motion to cancel the purchase of 14 police vehicles that are proposed in the 2021 capital budget. McEvoy supported the motion, but other council members voted against the motion to cancel the replacement of vehicles that have been deemed by staff to have reached the end of their useful service life.
Cote said he fully supports having the city look at its fleet in all departments and would support motions aimed at pursuing a green fleet, but doesn’t think this type of works should be done ad-hoc or by pulling individual pieces out of a budget.
“If council wanted the police board to look at less police officers and less patrol, then that might obviously have a connection with less number of vehicles,” he said. “But that’s something I think council would need to talk about. Just pulling out a vehicle that is past its life expectancy and is due for replacement this year, I guess I’d have a bit of a challenge with the amendment that’s being suggested.”