Mayoral candidate David Soknacki is taking aim at the police force's sizeable budget in a search for savings, but he's already being met with tough opposition from the officers' union.
Calling rising policing costs the "largest single challenge for our city's operating budget," at a press conference on Wednesday morning Soknacki announced part of a plan to shave $65 million from the force's billion-dollar operating budget. He pledged to reinvest the savings in other priorities like housing and transit.
"If we can fix the police budget, we can fix Toronto's budget. And if we can fix Toronto's budget we can afford to build the city we want," said Soknacki, who according to recent polls is trailing way behind the three leading candidates in race for the mayor's job.
At $1.1 billion, police costs made up 11.3 per cent of Toronto's $9.6-billion operating budget in 2014. Critics say the cost of policing has risen disproportionately in recent years. According to Soknacki, the force's budget grew at 2.3 times the rate of inflation over the past decade. Nearly 90 per cent of police expenditures go towards salaries and benefits.
Soknacki said that if elected he would personally sit on the Toronto Police Services Board to pursue the budget cuts. His first target: eliminate the current shift model that sees the city pay for 28 hours worth of police work every 24 hours.
As it stands, every day police work in three overlapping shifts: a morning and afternoon shift of 10 hours each, and a midnight shift of 8 hours. Soknacki would change that to three eight-hour shifts, which he claims could save at least $25 million every year.
He said said that the savings could be achieved without "reducing the frontline police complement by a single officer." Instead, officers would simply work fewer hours.
The 28-hour model has been in place since 1983, and has long been identified as a potential source of savings. In 2011 Chief Bill Blair called it an "obvious inefficiency."
But getting rid of it could be difficult. Successive police boards have tried without, and attempts to negotiate it out of the current police contract, which expires at the end of this year, would be met with strong resistance from the union.
Mike McCormack, head of the Toronto Police Association, is no fan of Soknacki's proposal.
"Rest assured I won't be working on his campaign," he said.
McCormack says the force is continually re-evaluating its shift structure but the current model is set up to balance cost efficiency, the health of officers, and high-volume call times. While he's open to negotiating a new model, he said "there's no facts or evidence" to support Soknacki's proposal.
So far, Soknacki is the only mainstream candidate who has made cutting the police budget a major part of his platform (although longshot challenger Ari Goldkind has called for capping department spending). A spokesperson for leading progressive candidate Olivia Chow expressed lukewarm support for the shift change idea, however.
Jamey Heath said the 28-hour shift model is "one area in which potential savings could be realized." He said if elected mayor Chow would cooperate with the union and the board to keep the budget "sustainable," and touted her "track record of working to keep the police budget reasonable" when she served on the police board from 1999 to 2000
Mayor Rob Ford said he would ask whoever takes over for Chief Blair next year to find five per cent savings in the budget, "but I wouldn't be going after frontline officers and dealing with their salaries."
Ford was heavily criticized in 2011 for approving a deal that gave police an 11.5-per-cent raise over four years.
At his press conference, Soknacki said he will roll out details of how he would find the remaining $40 million in his $65-million savings plan in the coming days, and reiterated his call, made earlier in the campaign, for a "complete strategic review" of the force. He said it's time to modernize the police service and re-examine what the city expects from its officers, including the degree to which they should be involved in community policing and dealing with the mentally ill.
He acknowledged that the force may push back against his proposals, but said it would be up to the police board to show resolve and root out inefficiencies.
"We're going to have to take some sacred cows to the stockyard," he said.
Note: This story has been edited to reflect the fact that Soknacki is not the only candidate who has focused on the police budget, but merely the only mainstream one to do so.