Wingham Police, OPP debated at public meetings - Jan. 25, 2018
BY DENNY SCOTT
The public demonstrated clear support for the Wingham Police Service at the second of two public meetings hosted by North Huron Council last week.
Council, for the past several months, has been considering its options in terms of police protection in Wingham and the rest of the municipality.
Staff presented council with three options for municipal policing: complete municipal OPP coverage, complete municipal coverage by the Wingham Police or the status quo of the OPP in Blyth and East Wawanosh and the municipal police service in Wingham.
After a public meeting last year and several council meetings where the issue has been debated, members of the public were finally afforded a chance to weigh in on the issue with two public meetings at the Wingham Town Hall Theatre on Jan. 17, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.
Reeve Neil Vincent started the evening meeting by encouraging everyone in attendance and everyone watching the event online to speak to their councillors and tell them how they would like council to vote on the issue.
Chief Administrative Officer Dwayne Evans priced out the three policing options, showing the decision wasn’t a simple difference in cost.
The synopsis of Evans’ presentation was that, over the proposed three-year transitional contract provided by the OPP, it would cost more than staying with the Wingham Police Service. Over a longer term, however, the OPP could provide savings.
In the short-term, Evans said that, on top of more expensive coverage, between $450,000 and $480,000 in expenses to close the current police department needed to be considered if North Huron went with the OPP.
For the first three years of OPP costing, Wingham ratepayers would pay $1.9 million in the first year, $1.28 million in the second year and $1.31 in the third year. The Wingham police service, however, is forecast to cost $1.165 million in the first year, $1.28 million in the second year and $1.19 million in the third year.
Looking to a 10-year period, Evans said the municipality could realize potential savings, however those numbers are based on current OPP pricing and call volume, both of which could increase in the next three years.
Evans estimated that the OPP could provide $2.13 million in savings to Wingham over 10 years, or an annual average of $213,398.
As for expanding the Wingham Police Service to cover East Wawanosh and Blyth, Evans refered to a report by Wingham Police Chief Tim Poole who said having one police officer constantly patrolling East Wawanosh and Blyth would require two more officers and additional support staff.
Municipality-wide policing provided by the Wingham Police Service would increase the annual cost from an average of $1.26 million annually over the next 10 years to $1.7 million.
The increase would nearly double the annual policing cost in Blyth and East Wawanosh from $339.66 per home (average, based on assessment) to $659 per home. Wingham ratepayers would also pay that same amount, resulting in a reduction to their annual policing cost.
The added expense would guarantee one officer dedicated to East Wawanosh and Blyth and one in Wingham unless both attended a call in the municipality.
Wingham resident Steve Hill asked several questions about the benefits for the Wingham Police officers switching to the Ontario Provincial Police as part of the change.
While there were clear benefits such as access to more expensive equipment and more potential for career advancement in the organization, it was eventually revealed by the OPP that these options may not be available to all existing Wingham Police Service members.
Specifically, it was explained that there would be a hiring process that Wingham Police Service members would need to go through including background checks.
As far as the specific equipment that Hill mentioned, a computer system that can read licence plates and identify vehicles of interest, Poole said equipment like that wasn’t strictly necessary in a community the size of Wingham as officers have the ability to investigate suspicious vehicles through other means.
Lisa Herman, a Wingham resident, asked if the OPP would have an officer stationed in Wingham 24 hours a day, matching the service currently provided by the Wingham Police Service.
Huron Detachment Inspector Jason Younan said the OPP deploy their officers based on crime and traffic trends.
“There may be times when there are multiple officers here in the Wingham area,” he said, refering to after the transitional contract was completed. “Sometimes, they are in different locations across the county. It’s based on calls per service and severity.”
Herman next asked if the OPP would mirror certain services provided by the Wingham Police Service, pointing to the latter’s presence at the schools in the community at the beginning of the school day to monitor traffic.
Younan said there are officers in the OPP who visit schools and could make that part of their patrol when they visit Wingham sites. “Everything is in relation to operational demands,” he said.
Herman also asked about response time, saying that officers in Wingham Police Service are typically quick to respond.
“We respond to all calls for services based on operational demands,” Younan said. “As a police service, we don’t track response times. We track effectiveness of investigations, but it depends on what is going on in the day. For me to say, with certainty, we will have an officer in Wingham 24/7 is unrealistic.”
Herman’s last question was in regards to the three year model, asking if there were any municipalities which had gone through the transitional process. While some municipalities have gone through the process, the most recent being Pembroke, the OPP representatives at the meeting didn’t have any information regarding post-transition budgets.
Wingham resident Jason Schiestel next asked what kind of police presence Wingham would see after the transitional contract and was told, after the three years, any officers that were hired for Wingham would be part of the Huron County detachment and could be moved around the area.
Schiestel also asked how much it would cost to have an OPP officer in Wingham at all times as part of an “enriched service” and was told the annual wage for an officer is $98,000. The OPP representatives, however, noted that wasn’t the full cost as it didn’t include benefits and equipment.
Former municipal Councillor Archie MacGowan, a Wingham ratepayer, spoke highly of the Wingham Police Service, saying that he didn’t see a significant savings as a result of the change.
“After the three years, it’s a guessing game,” he said. “I have known different [police service] disbandments that have occurred and, after they got through the transition, they had to renegotiate because call volumes had gone up and the price [was] different.”
MacGowan, who was also on the Police Services Board for Wingham, said in his experience it was difficult to judge 10 years of call volumes over three years, saying, in his experience, they were cyclical.
Finally, MacGowan asked for his representatives to vote to keep the Wingham Police Service, saying that, with a local department, there is a way to keep costs under control and have a say in budgets and direction.
“When the department is done, it’s done,” he said. “Council won’t be involved in collective bargaining. You will have given your power away.”
Wingham resident Dave Hill asked how the OPP would be able to respond if roads to Wingham were closed. Younan said that road closures, in the legal sense, don’t apply to the OPP, and said that the OPP has equipment, including ATVs, snow machines and 4x4 vehicles to get through that weather.
Bill McGrath of Wingham, also a former council member, said that 25 years ago this same issue was brought up. He expressed skepticisim that the OPP would be as present in the community as Wingham officers currently are.
“I don’t want to see the OPP here,” he said. “I don’t not like them, they just can’t do the same job that the community force can and we can’t bring that force back if we get rid of them.”
McGrath provided stories regarding his interactions with the Wingham Police Service, saying they go above and beyond the call of community policing in helping to keep ratepayers safe. Furthermore, he said that Wingham has, in his opinion, a low crime rate and said the way to keep that was to keep the Wingham Police Service.
Vincent said the costs for disbanding the Wingham Police Service, definitely would be assessed to Wingham ratepayers. Schiestel asked how that $450,000 to $480,000 would be paid for by ratepayers, asking as well about the $200,000 start-up costs for the OPP.
“That’s $650,000 spread over 1,500 properties,” he said. “That’s a pretty good hike on our taxes on the first year.”
He asked if council had any plans to spread it out over several years and was told that was an option being considered by council.
“From staff’s perspective, we’re not envisioning the one-time exit costs would all be borne in that first year,” Evans said.
Several other individuals expressed their support for the Wingham Police Service, each, like those previously, eliciting a round of applause from the majority of ratepayers in the audience before Vincent and Evans explained how council and staff were going to proceed.
Notes taken from the two meetings as well as any written submissions would be gathered up and included in a report to council next month. Vincent said he hopes council can make a final decision during its second meeting of the month on Tuesday, Feb. 20.
“This comes down to the Wingham Ward,” Vincent said. “Tell your councillors what you want. There is a clear decision to be made here.”