ATHABASCA/BARRHEAD/WESTLOCK — Since the new collective bargaining agreement between the National Police Federation, which represents 20,000 RCMP officers, and the federal government was announced August 2021 it has become become another uncertain cost for municipalities across the country.
Currently, the invoicing is paused, but Ottawa had started sending out bills to collect on retroactive wages for the RCMP dating back to 2017 and the new agreement will have a substantial monetary impact on communities in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and here in Alberta where there has already been growing police costs which were put on municipalities by the provincial government in 2020.
“It would be highly unfair,” said Town of Athabasca mayor Rob Balay. “We didn't have any say in the matter and the federal government chose to wait this long to negotiate a deal. So, I think that's on them.”
Town of Westlock mayor Ralph Leriger said the town has been paying for RCMP since 2017, after a 2015 census indicated the community had passed the threshold for RCMP to be covered by the province.
“We'd have to figure (retro pay) out and there's many times during the year when we were not at full complement (at the detachment). So, now you’ve got to start saying, ‘OK, so how many officers did we have when,’ to get any kind of an accurate number,” said Leriger.
“We can't retroactively tax people, we’re not allowed to run to run deficits. It's total BS that that we’re dragged into this without having any say so and not being involved in the negotiations. No heads up. No planning.”
That is the rallying cry of Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) president Taneen Rudyk, a fourth term councillor for the Town of Vegreville, who issued a statement Aug. 17 on contract policing and unbudgeted costs from the new RCMP collective agreement.
“Municipalities were not at the table for these negotiations. And while cost estimates were provided to some municipalities, these turned out to be far below the final agreement’s increase over six years, with retroactive pay going back to 2017,” Rudyk said in part of the longer document. “Facing such unplanned costs, many local governments across the affected provinces are concerned about how they are supposed to pay.”
Alberta Municipalities (AM) estimates municipalities will pay $80 million in retroactive pay and only a handful of municipalities across the province have calculated what that cost will be to them.
“As for the RCMP back pay, the County (of Barrhead) has not determined what it would cost as we have not received any information to base that analysis on or even whether that cost would be levied on the county,” said CAO Debbie Oyarzun.
She added that as information on the topic is made available by the province or Rural Municipalities Association (RMA) it is shared with the council.
“Both administration and council members have attended a variety of workshops, webinars, and town hall sessions to stay informed, however, at this time council has not taken an official position,” she said.
Athabasca County has taken a position though at the Aug. 30 regular meeting, where reeve Brian Hall echoed opinions of his fellow municipal leaders, and a motion was made by Coun. Gary Cromwell to send letters to both Lakeland MP Shannon Stubbs and Fort McMurray-Cold Lake MP Laila Goodridge as the majority of Athabasca County is in the Lakeland riding, except for the Wandering River which is in Goodridge's district.
“This is a big issue that we need to start thinking about. We need to consider how we would encourage our residents to contact their MP,” said Hall.
When UCP leadership candidate Danielle Smith was in Athabasca Aug. 31 she mentioned the possibility of a hybrid model using both RCMP and a provincial police force to beef up rural coverage, but that could lead to municipalities paying for two police services.
“I guess that's part of the debate of the provincial police force versus the RCMP providing those policing services throughout the provinces that don't have provincial policing,” said Balay. “Things like this don't happen.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s on board for ousting the RCMP though but, for now, with the UCP trumpeting a huge surplus, he wants the province to foot the bill for the retroactive pay if the federal government won’t, as opposed to cutting local services.
“If it was a lot of money ... a level of service in other things would have to be cut to find funds to pay for that, or we'd have to dip into our reserves on a one-time basis,” Balay said. “I don't think it's fair, especially when the province has a (multi-billion dollar) surplus this year.”
Starting in 2020 the towns and counties of Athabasca, Barrhead and Westlock, minus the Town of Westlock, which started paying a percentage for RCMP in 2017.
Athabasca County started at $202,773 and it will rise to $608,754 by 2024. The Town of Athabasca was $58,176, growing to $174,652, and the County of Barrhead paid $133,492 in 2020 and will be paying $400,764 in 2024. The Town of Barrhead still got funding for 2020 and 2021 but as of 2022 paid $20,344 and will be paying $110,709 in 2023 and 2024. Westlock County saw its RCMP costs rise from $151,066 in 2020 to $453,524 for 2024.
For now, the municipalities are in a holding pattern, waiting to see if they need to pony up for the difference in the cost, or if Ottawa will pick up the tab.
“I think it should be 100 per cent by the federal government,” said Balay. “They were the ones that had the ability to negotiate. The cost should be borne by the federal government, it's ridiculous to think that they would even ask municipalities to participate in that.”
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