Rural communities could face policing bills

Province considering getting smaller and rural communities to pick up a portion of policing costs

Central Alberta counties and small communities are bracing for a financial hit as the province looks at passing on policing costs.

Communities under 5,000 people and rural municipalities do not have to pay for policing now, but the government is looking at formulas that would see them pay between 15 and 70 per cent of the bill.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley held a news conference Wednesday afternoon calling on Premier Jason Kenney’s government to abandon the police funding plan that would affect 291 municipalities and 20 per cent of Alberta’s population.

Leaving 70 per cent of policing costs up to municipalities would cost them $157 million, the equivalent of a $406 increase on each tax bill, said Notley.

Besides the cost, the government’s proposal would undermine efforts, which are proving successful, to tackle rural crime, she said.

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer blasted Notley’s comments.

“The assertions made by the fear-mongering NDP are ridiculous and unfounded, and once again demonstrate the NDP’s complete lack of financial literacy,” he tweeted.

“Our government made a commitment to Albertans to consult on the police funding model that became broken under the NDP.

“We are investing more in policing, not less.”

Ponoka County chief administrative officer Charlie Cutforth said the county’s policing bill would be $393,000 a year if the municipality was expected to pick up 30 per cent of the costs, on top of what it already voluntarily pays.

The county, on its own initiative, is spending just over $200,000 a year to help fund a school resource officer and to pay for an RCMP general investigative section officer focused on rural crime.

Cutforth said that raises the question of whether it’s fair that communities who are already spending money on policing — Red Deer and Lacombe counties are also paying for RCMP investigators — get hit again.

The county has been fiscally prudent and council has never objected to paying its fair share of various costs, such as recreation, he said.

Small communities such as Rimbey, which has a population of about 2,500 people, would be challenged to add policing costs into their budgets, he said.

“They do operate on very limited resources. It might not be as many dollars, but the impact on them is likely going to be more serious than it is to us.”

If more police spending is expected, rural municipalities wonder whether it is not reasonable to expect more policing for their buck.

“I think, generally, what the rurals are saying is that’s well and good we’re going to step up and pay, but we’d sure like to see the level of service reflect that,” he said.

Cutforth said at this point, the province isn’t proposing any changes to service levels, only to spread the cost among more municipalities.

“That, I think, will meet with some resistance.”

Cutforth does not believe the province has made up its mind, and he credits it for taking its proposals to communities for input.

But a question looming large among municipal representatives is: where will it end?

“Today, we’re talking about policing. Tomorrow, what are we going to talk about — infrastructure?

“I think what has everybody on edge, and they are nervous about, is is this just the beginning, or is this just part of a bigger plan. It’s that uncertainty.”

He points out that earlier this year, the province rolled out an initiative to reduce the taxes shallow gas well producers pay to rural municipalities — some of which will lose millions of dollars.

Lacombe County manager Tim Timmons said the province’s policing plan appears to be in the early stages and it would be premature to try to gauge the impact of the potential cost to the county.

“We are concerned because they are contemplating some changes that are going to impact us.

“We don’t know whether funding from municipalities such as Lacombe County for policing will result in higher service levels, or if it’s just going to maintain the status quo,” said Timmons.

“There are just too many unanswered questions right now.”

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