Mayor defends Hamilton police budget while experts weigh in on board's power to change it

Requesting Hamilton police trim their spending on office supplies, the mounted unit or cable TV interferes with their operations and runs afoul of provincial legislation, says Mayor Andrea Horwath.

Mayor Andrea Horwath sat down with CBC Hamilton Tuesday to discuss the 2024 budget

woman sits in chair
Mayor Andrea Horwath is shown meeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Hamilton on Jan. 24, 2023. (Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press)

Watch CBC Hamilton's full interview with Mayor Andrea Horwath below.

Requesting Hamilton police trim their spending on office supplies, the mounted unit or cable TV interferes with their operations and runs afoul of provincial legislation, says Mayor Andrea Horwath. 

In a sit-down interview with CBC Hamilton Tuesday, Horwath explained why she opposed asking the police service to cut specific items from their $214.8 million budget. 

Council sent the 2024 police budget back for further review during its annual budget process, which prompted a special police services board meeting last week. Horwath voted in support of the review at the council meeting in late January. 

"Everybody knew that it was not likely to change," Horwath said of the police budget. "But as the mayor I felt like I needed to be responsive to the vast majority of the council and not simply say 'no, I'm not doing it.'"

Watch: Hamilton mayor explains her vote on police budget

Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath on the police budget process

2 months ago
Duration 5:14
Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath explains why she supported having the police budget sent back to the police board but did not support any of the proposed cuts.

At the special board meeting, members Cameron Kroetsch, who is also a city councillor, and Dr. Anjali Menezes put forward a series of motions directing police to find savings in a number of specific ways, including deferring the hiring of 22 new staff members and cutting retiree events and website design. 

They were not successful with Horwath and other board members voting the motions down.

Horwath told CBC Hamilton the proposed "line by line" cuts would change police operations. 

"The legislation is very clear: the board cannot direct the operations of the police service," she said, referring to the Police Services Act. "That's solely the responsibility of the chief."

What powers do police boards have?

Two policing experts who spoke to CBC Hamilton offered insight into what power the police board has when it comes to the budget.

They both pointed to the Police Services Act, sections 31 through 39, as detailing where the board can have some say in the budget, with some limitations.

Alok Mukherjee, former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015, said board members do have the power to suggest specific savings to the police service the way Kroetsch and Menezes tried to do.

"The board has the power to go through the police budget with a fine tooth comb," he said.

Mukherjee points to how in 2010, when Rob Ford was Toronto's mayor, all municipal departments were told to prepare to trim their budgets by 10 per cent.

The Toronto police chief at the time said he couldn't reduce the budget and insisted on a 1.5 per cent spending increase.

The board forced the police service to reduce the budget, with Mukherjee saying it included freezes on hiring, promotions and lowering contributions to reserves, among other things.

An older man sits in a chair with his fingers intertwined.
A file photo of Alok Mukherjee who was the former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

That said, dismantling the mounted unit or merging corporate communications with the city's communications department — the way Kroetsch and Menezes suggested — would have operational implications and would require discussion and a review of what impact that would have on the police service, he said.

"Not doing that could reflect negatively on how the board makes these decisions," he said.

Mukherjee said while it would be best to avoid "arbitrary cuts in those areas without a full examination" he also said the board can direct the chief to explore opportunities to reduce costs.

"The reserves are another matter. The board could ask that certain reserves be drawn on to reduce the annual budget," he said.

Scott Blandford, the program co-ordinator of the policing and public safety programs at Wilfrid Laurier University, who also spent 30 years policing in London, Ont., offered a slightly different interpretation.

He said the board can direct the police service to cut a certain part of the budget but not necessarily a line item.

For example, the board cannot direct the police service to cut cable TV, but can ask the service to reduce its facilities budget and then have the police service decide how it will do so.

"The chief decides the distribution within that budget section," he wrote in an email.

'You have to do your due diligence'

Horwath similarly said on Tuesday that there could have been a motion to "send the chief back with a mandate to shave the budget by a certain per cent" but that there wasn't enough time to discuss those review options. 

"I respect folks who want to see changes in terms of the funding of police," she said. "I know people get frustrated but they can't be done on a dime. You have to do your due diligence." 

However, she expects there will be policy discussions between the board and police in the future, she said, to understand what impact possible cuts would have on operations and to see if "policies need to change in line with some of those ideas that were brought forward."

The police budget with a $16-million or 8.41 per cent increase over 2023 was passed by council on Feb. 15.

Horwath said it reflected rising costs and staffing needs. 

"There's a need for policing in our community and there's just no doubt about that, and so it's trying to find the balance," Horwath said.

Watch: CBC Hamilton sits down with Mayor Andrea Horwath on Feb. 20

Mayor Andrea Horwath on the police budget, a new deal for Hamilton and more

2 months ago
Duration 19:24
Mayor Andrea Horwath spoke with CBC Hamilton's Samantha Beattie about the police budget, a new deal for Hamilton, affordable housing and more.