Council directs staff to negotiate five-year contract with Stratford Police
With some councillors citing the financial pressures created by downloading of costs from the provincial government, and others citing a perception among ratepayers that solving rural crimes has not been given a high enough priority in the municipality, Township Council in Perth South voted on Tuesday, July 11 to switch away from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) for provision of law enforcement and public safety.
The vote was unanimous for a motion put forward by Deputy Mayor Jim Aitcheson, and seconded by Coun. Stuart Arkett, to direct Township staff to begin negotiations with Stratford Police Chief Mike Bellai for a five-year contract. Council already has in its possession a report provided on May 23, 2017 by Bellai, outlining a projected annual cost of police service to the township of $461,000, plus a one-time start-up capital cost of $86,000 for initiating the contract.
Bellai’s proposal included one new, dedicated Stratford Police cruiser for the township, bearing the Perth South logo, as well as guaranteed coverage 24 hours, seven days a week. Extra resources would be brought in from Stratford as needed.
Council was initially set to vote on the motion on June 20 but opted to hold off after hearing a separate presentation from Inspector Rob Scott, commander of the OPP’s Sebringville-based Perth County detachment, as well as two officers from the provincial police force’s Municipal Policing Bureau. It was a presentation, however, that certainly didn’t impress Aitcheson; in speaking in support of the motion at the July 11 meeting, he referred to what could be described as an OPP counter-proposal as “probably the worst presentation I’ve ever seen.”
Perth South’s current annual cost of OPP coverage — which is essentially the lowest basic level of service available under provincial legislation and includes no Police Services Board but rather regular reports from the detachment to township council — is around $550,000. A discount of approximately 10 per cent is possible based on the actual calls from a given year, but this discount has not yet been confirmed for the most recent year for which the OPP has statistics.
In early 2017, the Town of St. Marys announced it would switch its community safety and law enforcement coverage from the Perth County OPP to Stratford Police, effective Jan. 1, 2018. At the July 11 meeting, Perth South Coun. Bill Jeffrey said this fact made it easier for him to contemplate a switch in the rural township that stretches between Stratford and St. Marys, as well as west to the Highway 23 boundary with Huron County.
“Plus, this is a five-year contract,” Jeffrey said. “It’s not forever. If (the Stratford Police) fall flat on their face, we’ll have reason to dismiss them.”
Still, the councillor from Harmony said, it has been difficult convincing some ratepayers about the merits of the change. He says a perception exists along the concessions that Stratford Police won’t be as in touch with rural concerns as the OPP.
One factor that has recently worked in his favour when arguing the merits of a change, though, has been a perceived inadequate response to a couple of recent incidents of rural thefts in his neighbourhood. And Mayor Bob Wilhelm agreed, saying his own Prospect Hill neighbourhood saw a significant theft recently, and the property owner also expressed dismay at the quality of police response.
Aitcheson said the reason he was not impressed with the June 20 OPP presentation to Council was the inability of the officers to provide accurate numbers about responses to incidents and the rate of solving crimes in Perth South. So he agreed with Jeffrey and Wilhelm.
But the biggest factor, for him, is cost savings — something that becomes more crucial for the township every time the level of funding is cut back from upper levels of government.
“This isn’t going to blow up our budget,” Aitcheson said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer that we switch to Stratford Police.”
Coun. Melinda Zurbrigg agreed: “The writing is on the wall . . . The savings are there.”
Details of the deal have yet to be worked out, so there’s no precise word yet on when the switch will come into effect. But Wilhelm noted that, unlike the St. Marys situation, this won’t mean the OPP is entirely absent from Perth South. The provincial force will still be mandated to patrol the provincial highways within the municipality — including Highways 7, 8 and 23.