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Police board chair uncertain budget freeze would result in layoffs

Toronto Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee, shown in 2006.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The chair of Toronto's police services board is not convinced a proposed budget freeze will lead to layoffs, despite this week's warnings from Chief Bill Blair.

Alok Mukherjee said more work needs to be done before he will know whether the city's request to hold policing costs at 2012 levels will translate into job losses.

"Until we have all the possibilities, it's premature for me to say the only way we can meet the recommendation is to let people go," said Mr. Mukherjee in an interview from Victoria. "I am not prepared to forecast any conclusions until I review all the numbers."

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Police Chief Blair had no such hesitations earlier this week at a meeting of the board.

Faced with a request to freeze spending in 2013, Chief Blair warned board members of the consequences. "If you commit to those targets, you are committing to layoffs," he said.

He later tempered his comments, explaining to reporters that with 88 per cent of the force's spending devoted to salaries and benefits it would be difficult to flat line spending without reducing payroll. "There's a number of options available to us, but layoffs is one of them," he said.

Mr. Mukherjee is not convinced. The chief, he said, has a responsibility to raise the issue, but the outcome is far from certain.

"I think the chief's message is a very important reminder that that might be a consequence," he said. "The board will have to keep that in mind."

The zero increase budget target – outlined in a letter from the city manager and endorsed in a vote by the board – is in keeping with actions taken last year by the board to reduce policing costs, Mr. Mukherjee said. "The trend of constantly rising costs has to be reversed," he said. "Whether we can achieve the target the board agreed to [Wednesday] depends on a very detailed analysis and we haven't done that yet."

Toronto police last year were asked to make a 10-per-cent cut to their budget – the same target given to all city departments, agencies, boards and commissions. After much debate, including a direct appeal by the chief to Mayor Rob Ford, council approved a 0.6 per cent increase.

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This latest request comes less than a month after a series of gun crimes led Mr. Ford to call for an increased police presence on Toronto streets.

"You can always do with more. The challenge is to not succumb to that too readily,"said Mr. Mukherjee when asked whether he agrees the city needs more officers.

"My effort this year is to ensure outside of the drama we have a very thorough process and seriously talk about what is possible," he said.

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