The communities of Courtenay and Comox share the same police force and get essentially the same police service.
Comox residents spend an average of $105 per person annually for that service. Courtenay residents pay about $180.
It’s a similar situation between Duncan and North Cowichan, where the former pays about $57 per person and the latter $179.
View Royal and Langford are both served by the Westshore RCMP. View Royal pays $116 and Langford $169.
Why? Right now, the simple answer is “because of the provincial funding formula.”
And a majority of Vancouver Island politicians believe it is time for that formula to change.
“The difference between what we pay and what Comox pays is about $8 million,” Courtenay Mayor Larry Jangula said. “It’s a provincially funded service, by and large. For hospitals and schools people are assessed equally. (For police), people do not pay equally.
“Should this not all be paid proportionally? Every person should be paying on assessed value.”
According to the Ministry of Public Safety, it is listening to the question, but not yet ready to provide an answer.
“We have received input from local government on many of these issues and we are exploring a range of models including further integration of services and the regional delivery of services, while at the same time retaining local community-focused policing. That work is ongoing,” Solicitor-General Mike Morris said in an emailed statement.
“Criminals don’t respect municipal boundaries. Integration is a key part of our strategy to meet current and future policing challenges which helps communities stretch their policing budgets by giving their police access to sophisticated equipment and expertise.”
The ministry declined to clarify further, but as a reference point, it cited 2013’s BC Policing and Community Safety Plan and its recurring theme that policing in BC should be “structured, governed, and funded in a rational and equitable manner.”
The implication, to some at least, is that is not currently the case.
Most would call the current system somewhat complicated.
The province of British Columbia has a contract with the federal government to provide provincial policing services through the RCMP. The federal government pays 30 per cent of that cost. The province pays the rest, although it recoups a portion of its share from residents through a police tax.
This arrangement takes care of serious crime and large-scale events province-wide, as well as regular policing in communities with populations under 5,000, and all unincorporated areas.
Generally, these small communities — including places like Duncan, Lake Cowichan and Cumberland — pay the least amount per capita and also have the least amount of influence on how and where their officers are deployed.
However, under the Police Act, once a community hits a population of 5,000, it becomes responsible for its own policing.
Some, including Victoria, Saanich, Central Saanich and Oak Bay choose to form their own forces, pay 100 per cent of their costs, and set direction for that force through a municipal police board.
The rest enter into contracts with the province to provide RCMP services, with communities under 15,000 contributing 70 per cent of the cost and communities over 15,000 contributing 90 per cent of the cost. These communities have little authority over how their detachment is directed, but can expand their resources if they are willing to pay the price.
The situation is further complicated by cases of a major crime. If a murder happens in a rural area like Mill Bay or Quadra Island, the investigation proceeds at no additional cost to the residents of that community. If it happens in a larger community like Campbell River, that community’s taxpayers are on the hook for 90 per cent of the extra cost.
“If a serious crime happens it costs $1 million,” Jangula said.
But even as Jangula lobbies for a new system, he acknowledges the crime rate is lower in Comox. Smaller communities generally have different, less expensive, policing needs, including less serious crime. The primary issue is where the system draws its lines.
At 17,000 people, Port Alberni may have more in common with Parksville (12,000) than Surrey (500,000), But Parksville gets a 30 per cent subsidy while Port Alberni and Surrey are both subsidized by 10 per cent.
The inequities, however, are not always as apparent as they seem when comparing adjacent urban centres.
Take the Tahsis situation, for example. In Tahsis, residents pay considerably less — about $44 per person — but that comes with a caveat; the nearest police station is in Gold River, 66 kilometres away on a rough road.
When Tahsis had a population of about 2,500, it had its own police detachment. With the population dwindling to about 300 full-time residents, the detachment disappeared a couple years ago.
Mayor Jude Schooner said the move certainly created challenges, particular when summer dramatically swells the population. Through the use of a service agreement they have made the situation work. However, she said that may not be the case with an NCO in charge who is less attuned to the needs of her village.
“They were here I think every week, for sure. They are definitely showing their colours,” she said. “It’s part and parcel to the sergeant in charge. I have great respect for what they have done. They’ve been really attentive.”
That said, it is one thing being satisfied at $44 per person. It’s another at $229, the per capita combined rate for all municipalities over 15,000 using the RCMP.
“One thing you have to take into account is every community is different. (Communities under 5,000) don’t have the same power to determine their level of service,” Tahsis CAO Mark Tatchell said.
“If you are under 5,000 you may not be aware of the cost. It does definitely change the thinking. A lot of communities will fight tooth and nail to stay under that that. They are getting discount policing.”
Provincial Opposition public safety critic Mike Farnworth said the system creates some challenges. The key, he said, is listening to communities and responding to their issues, rather than forcing top-down policies. He pointed to the downloading of DNA testing onto municipalities as an example.
“The critical component is co-operation with local government,” he said. “If there is a change that will improve equity and improve services, that’s what we’re interested in.”
Black Press asked the solicitor-general whether it was considering an across-the-board per capita funding option, an assessment-based model, the creation of shared policing regions like the health authorities, or cost-sharing the burden for major crime investigations province-wide. His office declined comment, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate while the process is ongoing.
Farnworth was hesitant to comment on Jangula’s proposal to move away from a tiered system without a full understanding of its impact on smaller communities.
“We want to work with communities,” he said. “We want to hear those issues and respond.”
Jangula is a former long-time RCMP officer who has experienced the system from detachments large and small.
He recently earned the support of Vancouver Island communities to ask the Union of B.C. Municipalities for provincial endorsement of an an “equitable funding program.”
That should not be equated with an endorsement of his preferred assessment-based model. That’s because it has yet to be defined exactly what “equitable” means.
“No one wants to pay more for the same service,” Tatchell said. “Our community would want to see the rationale for it.”
Police costs per capita:
Port Alberni $353
Oak Bay $258*
Campbell River $254
Central Saanich $233*
North Cowichan $179
Qualicum Beach $148
North Saanich $147
View Royal $116
Port McNeill $48
Lake Cowichan $46
Port Hardy $44
—Municipalities over 5,000 from the Solicitor-General’s 2014 Report on Police Resources
—Municipalities under 5,000 from the 2016 provincial order in council, based on the 2011 census
* Communities that employ municipal police forces