While the interim budget was balanced, the final budget for the Town of St. Paul in 2021 will need to look a little different in order to accommodate $24,000 of unexpected policing costs.
According to a letter from Alberta Justice dated Feb. 25, the Government of Alberta is implementing “a chargeback model for the provincial portion of Biology Casework Analysis Agreements expenses” and the Town is now responsible for a portion of the costs for analyzing DNA samples submitted by St. Paul RCMP.
According to RCMP biological evidence is divided and analyzed under four categories – crimes against property, crimes against persons, sexual assault and homicides. They have forensic laboratories in Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa which handle the requests.
“We were given no heads up that this might be coming,” said Town of St. Paul CAO Kim Heyman. “It came completely out of left field.”
The letter states the payment will be “calculated every two years, and applies for the subsequent two-year period.”
Based on the data submitted from fiscal 2017-18 and 2018-19, there are an average of 15 samples submitted annually by St. Paul RCMP, and a combined provincial average of 558 samples submitted by all municipal detachments in Alberta.
“I was able to talk to our division here to ascertain that these were town costs, because of the detachment serves the county and our neighbors as well I wanted to make sure that these costs were just associated with the town,” said Heyman.
She said the detachment was able to assure her that the 15-sample average is based on samples sent in relation to crimes committed within the Town of St. Paul. The St. Paul RCMP detachment also serves a number of hamlets in the County of St. Paul, as well as Saddle Lake Cree Nation and Whitefish (Goodfish) Lake First Nation.
According to Jason van Rassel, a spokesperson for Alberta Justice and Solicitor General, until April 2020 the cost of biological evidence testing for municipal police services was split 54/46 between the Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada.
“In the 2020-21 fiscal year, the Government of Alberta ended this subsidy for communities that have municipal police services and municipal RCMP contracts,” said van Rassel.
He said the distribution of costs is fair “considering municipal police services are the ones that decide which cases they will submit evidence to the lab for analysis.”
“In jurisdictions where the provincial government is responsible for paying a portion of policing costs (small and rural communities policed by the RCMP under the provincial police service agreement or the First Nations Policing Program) the provincial government continues to pay for lab work,” said van Rassel.
“Under this system, municipal police services continue to have the autonomy to make investigative decisions about testing evidence and operational decisions about costs independently of the government.
Having local police pay for their own lab work is consistent with practices in other jurisdictions: police in British Columbia and Nova Scotia also pay a portion of the costs associated with biological casework,” said van Rassel.
According to the province, in fiscal 2020-21 the total cost of biology casework analysis was $5.8 million, of which $905,132 was from municipalities receiving police services from the RCMP. St. Paul is responsible for approximately 2.686 per cent of the municipal samples submitted.
The province does subsidize some policing costs for the Town of St. Paul. Under the 2020-21 funding model, the town receives a Municipal Policing Assistance Grant of $247,704 which includes a base grant of $200,000 and per capita funding of $8.
According to Heyman, if the St. Paul Detachment were fully staffed, about 10 per cent of the Town’s overall budget would be policing costs.
“But they haven’t been fully staffed, or at least not since I’ve been here. So to offset that we get a policing grant which is somewhere between 25 and 30 per cent of the costs,” said Heyman.
She said in the past when there’s been changes to funding agreements that result in increased costs to the municipalities, “usually they’ve given us some time, a year or two of notice that the expense is coming down the pipe so you had a chance to work it in to your budget.”
In an e-mailed statement, the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association said St. Paul is not the only community to have received this bill recently and not the only municipality to be caught off guard by the change.
The AUMA acknowledged the province did forecast increases to revenues “from municipalities instead of the province paying for biology casework analysis, estimated at $5 million starting in 2020-21,” in Budget 2019 (page 78 for the curious. It’s the only mention of the agreement in the 208-page document.)
“There was no other mention of this policy change in any of the other budget documents, and no information on which municipalities the chargeback would apply to nor how it would be calculated,” said the AUMA.
“Neither AUMA nor municipalities with MPSAs [Municipal Police Service Agreements] received any further communication from the province on this topic until the invoices were sent out this month. As a result, municipalities were not able to budget for this expense.”
According to van Rassel, Alberta Justice and Solicitor General communicated the change by sending a letter to the commanding officer of the RCMP in Alberta.
“It’s our understanding that RCMP “K” Division headquarters then distributed the information to detachment commanders in the affected communities.
In cities with municipal police services (e.g. Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat), JSG sent letters in November 2019 to the local police chief, with copies to the chair of the local police commission and the local mayor,” said van Rassel.
Fraser Logan, a media relations manager with the RCMP confirmed the province told them about the change, “however we did not instruct them [detachment commanders] to inform municipalities. We did not see this as our obligation as the decision did not come from “K” Division RCMP.”
According to the AUMA, the authority for charging municipalities for lab work is also not clear. “DNA analysis services are not part of an MPSA, and municipalities are not party to the BCAA, which is signed between the provincial and federal governments.”
AUMA said they are following up with the Minister of Justice and Solicitor General. The organization said they understand the province is struggling with cost pressures “however, when costs are passed on to local government, municipalities have no option but to increase their property taxes in order to balance their budgets as required under the Municipal Government Act.”
They called the shift in responsibility for the costs of lab work part of “a pattern of downloading to municipalities from senior levels of government and the tax burden is passed on to the taxpayer.”