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UPDATED: Town’s population passes 5,000, triggering jump in policing costs
Osoyoos taxpayers will be hit with sharply increased policing costs now that the town’s population has exceeded 5,000.
Mayor Sue McKortoff said she was caught by surprise by census figures released on Wednesday showing the town’s population increased to 5,085.
Municipalities with between 5,000 and 15,000 population must pay 70 per cent of policing costs, with the remaining 30 per cent paid by the federal government.
For smaller towns, the province pays the 70 per cent, but it recovers a portion of the cost, about 30 per cent, from municipalities through a police tax levy.
Municipalities with more than 15,000 must pay 90 per cent, with the federal government paying the remaining 10 per cent.
“We thought that we weren’t going to have this problem,” said McKortoff, noting that at the time of the 2016 census in May last year, Osoyoos was facing the prospect of Osoyoos Secondary School closing and people moving away as a result.
In the 2011 census, the population of Osoyoos was 4,845.
The growth in Osoyoos, at five per cent, was the highest in the South Okanagan. By contrast, Oliver saw only 2.2 per cent growth and managed to stay below the 5,000 threshold with a population of 4,928.
“We were quite surprised that it went up that much,” McKortoff said. “We are proactive in this because we have some money set aside, which we’ve done for the last five years in anticipation of this.”
McKortoff said the town has a reserve for policing of $223,000. Additionally, the 2017-18 budget is not yet finalized and so further adjustments could be made, she said, adding that council has been very careful in its budget deliberations.
Exact figures on the additional costs aren’t yet available, but based on last year’s policing bill of $387,569, the total cost could exceed $900,000 a year.
Other municipalities in a similar situation are paying in the range of $180 to $200 per person each year for policing.
But McKortoff noted that a number of considerations will need to be looked at, including whether Osoyoos wants to contract municipal policing to the RCMP, establish its own police service, or “piggyback” with another community’s service.
In B.C., there are 12 municipalities that have their own municipal police departments, but of these, only Nelson has a population below 15,000.
Municipalities with their own service receive no federal funding and must pay 100 per cent of the costs.
The province currently has 63 municipalities that contract with the RCMP for municipal police services.
Osoyoos isn’t the only B.C. municipality to cross the 5,000 threshold in the recent census.
Fernie and Armstrong have also passed the 5,000 figure, with Fernie’s population making a surprising 18 per cent jump.
The increase has caught Fernie by surprise as some officials thought its population was in decline.
Other municipalities – such as Peachland and Creston – have faced this policing cost shock with previous censuses.
Elsie Lemke, the chief administrative officer of the District of Peachland, is also a former CAO of Osoyoos. So she’s well aware of what Osoyoos is facing and has shared information and advice with town administration.
Peachland was first hit with additional policing costs in 2007 when the province changed the funding formula and then it passed the 5,000 threshold with the 2011 census.
Peachland, she said, put away $1 million in reserve funds in expectation of a major impact on the community.
“We drew from those reserve funds once we had to start paying for policing so we would be able to mitigate those costs,” she said.
By the time those funds had run down, the assessment was changed enough that the impact was minimal.
“What we were able to do was keep the tax increase to about between 1.6 and 2.0 per cent a year by having that reserve fund,” Lemke said.
Peachland also considered its options well in advance and decided it didn’t make sense to have its own municipal police force, she said.
Her advice to Osoyoos is to benefit from the negotiations.
“You can negotiate things like how many members you need,” she said. “Sit down with the RCMP and talk about how the costs can be contained.”
While Peachland was able to share administrative costs with Kelowna and West Kelowna, that opportunity might not exist for Osoyoos, she said.
On the other hand, Osoyoos is in a unique situation because of the border, so there may be room to negotiate with the federal government to have them keep some of those responsibilities without them falling on the local community, she said.
Former Osoyoos Mayor Stu Wells said the policing cost issue has long been on his radar, but like McKortoff, he was surprised the town’s population increased by so much.
Wells said he talked to mayors of Peachland and Creston when their populations passed the threshold and got some insights.
“When they started going through it, it was very onerous and costly,” he said. “It certainly took every spare dollar you had.”
While he was mayor, council began setting aside reserve funds to cushion the blow, he said.
Wells noted that there are other implications for the town such as the need to take responsibility for an aging detachment building.
And, he said, strange anomalies sometimes develop because certain areas covered by a detachment pay for the service in different ways.
“It can open the door to all kinds of silliness,” he said, citing past examples of police services having to pass through areas they can’t serve.
“I really hope that with the upper management of the RCMP they can find something that’s going to work for everybody,” Wells said.
McKortoff expects the issue to be discussed when council next meets on Feb. 20 and as more information becomes available about the transition process.