Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim’s majority on council has voted to give the fire department $1 million less funding than recommended in next year’s budget – while giving the police $2.1 million more.
The initial tinkering with the 2024 budget for first responders came via amendments introduced by the mayor’s ABC party and opposed by the opposition councillors at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I think it sends a signal to (Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services) that they’re still on the back burner, no pun intended,” Green party Coun. Pete Fry told CTV News.
“I think this is a pretty clear signal of where their priorities lie.”
Staff’s draft budget recommended a 7.6 per cent increase in funding to VFRS’ net operating budget, which worked out to a bump of $12,543,000. Council voted to reduce that amount by $1 million, saying the lower amount essentially prorates the cost of hiring new personnel to account for the fact that new recruits won’t start working on Jan. 1 of next year.
The move came after Sim brought forward an amendment that adjusted a number of line items in the budget to decrease the total spending by $2.5 million.
The decision was opposed by the non-ABC councillors, who cited a record-breaking number of calls to respond to fires and overdoses and high levels of firefighter burnout, characterizing the move as giving the critical service less money at a time when the department is under more pressure than ever.
The ABC councillors pushed back, saying that the decreased funding still represents a significant annual increase. The adjusted amount brings the total amount to $175,597,000 – an increase from last year of seven per cent.
VFRS said last month that calls are up 25 per cent compared to 2022, and that calls to the department have doubled since 2019.(opens in a new tab)
In a statement, VFRS Chief Karen Fry said the department is “happy that Council continues to support and recognize the value and need of Vancouver Fire Rescue Services” and that funding for new staff will “help alleviate some of the pressures we’ve been facing recently.”
In a separate amendment, ABC Coun. Brian Montague, who is a former officer with the Vancouver Police Department, proposed giving the force $2.1 million more than the $30,065,000 proposed in the draft. That works out to a year-over-year percentage increase of 8.5 per cent, higher than the 7.9 per cent that was recommended
The increase is to be funded by the savings in Sim’s earlier amendment, Montague confirmed.
The bump brings the VPD’s net operating budget up to $411,833,000 per year but is less than the (opens in a new tab)$6 million that the Vancouver Police Board asked for,(opens in a new tab) a move the ABC councillors said demonstrated fiscal responsibility and restraint.
The opposition councillors voted against the amendment, questioning why police were being given more money than the draft recommended while the fire department was receiving less.
“Policing still represents over a fifth of our budget, our operating budget. It’s a significant investment and it continues to go up and there are some serious questions to ask,” Fry said, noting that Sim’s ABC party received an unprecedented endorsement from the Vancouver Police Union during a 2022 election campaign where the issue of public safety was highly politicized.
“The narrative that the mayor came in on – the public safety narrative, the Vancouver is dying narrative, the stranger attacks narrative – all turned out to be grossly exaggerated, if not categorically untrue,” Fry continued, referencing a CTV News exclusive that revealed police data showed that the number of these crimes in the city plummeted in the lead-up to the 2022 election.(opens in a new tab)
Sim’s key campaign promise on the public safety front was to hire 100 police officers to pair with 100 new mental health nurses to exponentially expand the number of these Car 87/88 partnerships.
While 100 officers have been hired, the pledge on the health-care front was significantly scaled back(opens in a new tab) – with council providing $2.8 million in funding for 58 workers, most of whom would work independently from police. In October, Vancouver Coastal Health said they would be hiring the equivalent of 14 full-time workers to pair with police – and that fewer than half of those positions had been filled by that point.
“Funding for enhanced mental health services” is mentioned many times in the draft but there is no line item that shows how much the city will spend on this next year
“There’s nothing of substance,” Fry said. “Certainly nothing close to the 100 nurse promise.”
The changes to the VFRS and VPD operating budgets did not change the total property tax increase, which was estimated at 7.6 per cent.
However, another amendment by Sim introduced later Tuesday afternoon decreased that to 7.5 per cent. The three opposition councillors abstained from voting on that, saying it was not clear enough where cuts would be made.
Debate on the draft budget is set to continue Tuesday afternoon.
Source: CTV News