Victoria’s police chief says he’s shocked the City of Victoria intends to cut the budget for a late-night police task force and feels like the rug has been pulled out from under him as the decision has been made at the 11th hour of budgeting.
Chief Del Manak said he hopes to address councillors again and have them reinstate the $220,000 for the late-night weekend program before the city tables its final budget in April. But he remains stunned that the city would make such a move so late in the budget process.
“This has a huge, huge impact on public safety and our downtown on Friday and Saturday nights in our entertainment district. This is not an optional resource. This is a must-have for the police officers to be able to maintain public safety downtown,” Manak said in an interview Wednesday.
The late-night program, paid for out of the city’s budget and not the police budget, funded deployment of four police officers every Friday and Saturday night to move around the streets and between bars, nightclubs and other late-night spots.
“The return on investment for the $220,000 is off the charts,” Manak said.
Manak made an impassioned plea for direction from the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board Tuesday night. The board recommended he return to Victoria council to request the funding be reinstated.
Manak told the Times Colonist he’s surprised it has come to this. He said he painted a vivid picture of the importance of the program during an in-camera meeting with council in early March.
“This should have been the easiest discussion for council, for retaining the funding once they heard the value added by this program,” Manak said, noting he explained that known gang members from the Lower Mainland are regularly on the Island and frequenting Victoria’s night spots, and the officers are there to identify and remove them.
“We are regularly ejecting individuals who are here in our city and they’re extremely violent. And it’s not fair to put this responsibility on those working in bars like door staff,” he said. “These are dangerous, violent offenders that are accessing many of our locations and to put that responsibility on staff is irresponsible.”
Manak said the officers are also tasked with making their presence known as a deterrent to bad behaviour, and by being at the right place at the right time officers have prevented assaults, stopped potential drunk drivers before they start their cars, regularly intervene where there’s intoxication, disturbances and rival groups starting confrontations, and are looking out for vulnerable people.
Manak said he can only guess that council didn’t understand the implications of the cut.
“I wasn’t even aware that this was even on the chopping block,” Manak said, adding it is too late for him to find money in his own 2023 budget, which was deliberated over in the fall. “I don’t have capacity within my own budget, and this is a critical operational kind of decision that the city has made that leaves a significant shortfall. …
“This is a big deal. This is a game changer for the safety of our downtown entertainment district.”
It may have been that council didn’t realize what it was cutting.
Two weeks before Manak addressed council during an in camera session, councillors approved measures, suggested by city staff, that would adjust the draft budget to reflect a 6.9 per cent tax hike for 2023.
Included in those recommendations was a cut of $220,000, which city chief financial officer Susanne Thompson verbally introduced as “a recommendation to discontinue the late night program.” The cut was written in the staff report as a budget cut from the business and community relations budget.
Coun. Marg Gardiner said it wasn’t laid out as a cut to police services, and admits she was surprised to hear from Manak about his concerns.
Gardiner, and other councillors contacted Wednesday, said they would be open to revisiting the budget item.
“The chief did speak on this and I think his plea was very well received,” she said.
Coun. Chris Coleman said it appears council made cuts not realizing it would have a direct impact on the police budget.
“I think that was missed by all of us, because it didn’t come as a line item saying, ‘you’re cutting the police function,’ ” he said.
Other councillors agreed, with Matt Dell suggesting having to scrimp and save on policing in Victoria is another reason Greater Victoria needs a regional force.
“People from around the CRD and Lower Mainland travel to downtown Victoria to visit our bars, nightclubs, restaurants and events, and there are big policing costs that come along with these services. I’d like to see a regional policing model, so all municipalities can help cover the costs associated with being the downtown core area of a larger region,” he said. “A regional policing model would help fund some of the unique challenges that Victoria is required to address, and allow other municipalities to help cover the costs that Victoria taxpayers alone must cover currently.”
Bruce Williams, chief executive of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, said the program needs to be funded.
“If people want to go out for a night on the town, they deserve to be safe and I think some of that guarantee of safety goes away with this,” he said. “Keeping this in place really makes a lot of sense, and in the big picture, it’s really not a lot of money.”