The Ford administration and the city's top cop are on a collision course over the 2013 police budget, with the force revealing Thursday that it plans to break the hiring freeze it has been under for the past two years.
The mayor and Chief Bill Blair are already sparring over Ford's demand that all city departments commit to a zero per cent budget increase in 2013. Blair said last week capping spending at the $933.8 million approved in 2012 would require layoffs next year, because the force needs $30 million for raises included in the latest police union contract.
But at a meeting of the city budget committee Thursday, police financial director Angelo Christofaro revealed that Blair's preliminary plans for 2013 also call for hiring roughly 200 officers. Each of the previous two years, Blair agreed to Ford's request to defer hiring any new recruits.
The new hires eyed for next year would cost $10 million, and would allow police to maintain current staffing levels by keeping pace with the number of service members expected to retire or resign in 2013.
As a result of the two-year freeze, staffing levels have fallen from 5,587 in 2010 to around 5,400 officers in 2012, as service members who leave the force are not replaced.
Police spokesperson Mark Pugash warns it would be unwise to allow the force to shrink any further, but stops short of saying it would pose a risk to public safety.
"If we didn't recruit next year, we would be down 400 [from the council-approved complement of 5,600]. And that is an enormous amount," he says. "I'm not going to speculate on what might happen were we to get to that position. But by anyone's estimate, to be down 400 officers would present significant problems."
Pugash says the ban on new hires hasn't compromised public safety so far because Chief Blair has successfully re-allocated resources to ensure frontline service isn't affected.
"We've managed that year after year after year, but the extent to which that can be continued is difficult to say," says Pugash.
Councillor Michael Thompson, vice-chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, isn't convinced that continuing the hiring freeze would be dangerous.
"I don't buy the argument that more police officers make the city a safer place," Thompson says. "Clearly having more police officers is helpful, but a combination of things are needed."
The councillor argues that reducing poverty and providing young people with adequate jobs and housing are also key to fighting crime.
Budget chair Councillor Mike Del Grande, who appealed to the police board last week to hold the line on spending, also argued there is no indication that a complement of 5,200 officers would be unsafe.
"There's been absolutely no study that I'm aware of that said you need x or you need y," he told reporters Thursday. "Maybe we need 10,000, I have no idea."
The high profile gun violence at the Eaton Centre and on Danzig St. this summer has put the spotlight on the number of officers on Toronto streets, which at roughly 200 per 100,000 population ranked 25th in a study of 60 North American and Australian cities in 2011.
Following those shooting sprees, the force deployed 320 extra service members in high priority neighbourhoods at no cost to the city by mandating overtime for some officers. Ford himself asked the province to put up cash to hire more police, only to be turned down by Premier Dalton McGuinty.
During last year's budget deliberations, Ford instructed all city divisions to slash spending by 10 per cent in 2012. While several departments missed that target, the police were the only one to win a small increase, of .6 per cent.
In an indication of the Ford administration's intent to take a hard line with police finances this time around, on Thursday the budget committee, which is dominated by the mayor's allies, refused a routine request to re-allocate $1.8 million to the police to reflect a new pay agreement with the force's senior officers. The money had already been set aside in the 2012 budget.
The request will now go to the mayor's executive committee for consideration, but budget committee member Councillor Peter Milczyn hopes it is turned down. He says the force should be able to come up with the money itself by finding efficiencies.
"The city isn't in a position to continually increase their budget," Milczyn said.