03/19/2012 03:03 EDT | Updated 05/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Policing costs rising to unsustainable levels, say police services boards

TORONTO - Ontario's police services boards are calling on the governing Liberals to halt rising policing costs, which are climbing at a rate of five to seven per cent a year.

The province should consider centralizing police bargaining for municipalities and find ways to eliminate the use of police officers for non-core tasks, said Alok Mukherjee, president of the Ontario Association of Police Services Boards.

That may include using more civilians or giving up some tasks to private security firms, he said.

"We need to sit down and do that kind of an analysis and get away from the notion that every service provided by police service must be performed by a uniformed officer," he said.

The province should also cap wage increases at the rate of inflation and, as economist Don Drummond suggested, ensure arbitrated decisions are made using objective criteria, he said.

Few police contracts end up in arbitration, Mukherjee said. But those few have a "significant impact" on the pattern of settlements.

The province must sit down with police employers and come up with a system "that is sustainable, that prevents the leapfrogging that has been going on, resulting in significant increases that are not sustainable," he said.

It may not happen overnight, but the government has committed to making changes that will produce better results, Mukherjee said.

According to the association, Ontario and its municipalities are spending $3.8 billion a year on policing — a number that keeps going up.

Policing costs are outpacing inflation, population growth and even the number of cops on the street, it said. Municipalities and local police boards don't have the ability to address those rising costs without dramatically increasing taxes or cutting costs.

But the responsibility for keeping those costs down belongs to the police services boards who are negotiating the contracts, said Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur.

The Liberals are taking a harder line with the province's doctors and teachers, who are being asked to freeze wages to help slay a $16-billion deficit.

But Meilleur wouldn't say whether Ontario Provincial Police will also be asked to accept a pay freeze.

"Each negotiation takes their own course and we'll see with the next negotiation," Meilleur said. "I cannot say in advance what will be on the table. We have to wait for the negotiation process."

Talks for a new collective agreement with the Ontario Provincial Police is set to begin in April, but it won't focus on wages, said a spokesman for Meilleur.

"Wages were settled last year and police agreed to freeze their pay through to the end of December 2014," Seirge LeBlanc wrote in an email.

"As a result, wages will not be the subject of negotiations until 2014."

The province finalized a five per cent increase for the OPP in November 2010, a few months after tabling a budget that called for a two-year wage freeze from the broader public sector.

Premier Dalton McGuinty even urged police and municipalities to do their part to rein in salaries just days after the budget, insisting that taxpayers won't pay for any salary increases.

Officials at the Ministry of Government Services — which negotiated the contract in 2008 — defended the pay hike that took effect in January 2011, saying the OPP had fallen far behind other police forces.

It brought the annual salary of a first-class constable to $83,483, in line with York and Toronto police wages, they said. The Ontario Provincial Police Association also agreed to a salary freeze for 2012 and 2013.

But critics argue that the contract effectively guarantees that the OPP will be No. 1 in the province come 2014.

Efforts to curb public sector wages have been frustrated by several rulings by independent arbitrators, who have awarded pay raises despite the government’s wishes.

However, the Liberals have refused to introduce legislation to impose a freeze, which the Progressive Conservatives say is needed to eliminate the deficit.