There is no challenge whatsoever as to the merit of the program, what is of dire concern is the hand-to-mouth existence experienced at this time in keeping a Canadian Mental Health Association response worker as a resource for St. Thomas Police.
Earlier this month, city council approved an $18,000 expenditure that will allow
clinician Alex Paterson to remain with the service until the end of June.
She has been on board since October of 2017 when a one-year pilot program was launched.
Several extensions ensued, with the latest set to expire at the end of the month, allowing St. Thomas Police Chief Chris Herridge additional time to explore funding opportunities with the province and the South West Local Health Integration Network (LHIN).
We talked to Herridge this week to ascertain what financial gateways are open to him to ensure financial stability for a resource that has proven itself from the get-go.
“We’re hoping the minister of health (Christine Elliott) who is traveling around the province and getting feedback on mental health issues . . . and obviously, they want to do the best practices, to find the best model that’s out there.
Herridge feels the province is taking a look at what police services across Ontario are doing.
“What we’re all doing as individual police services and kind of put together the best model that we can create from the province that’s going to benefit those who need assistance with mental health.
Herridge continued, “That’s a stream where we may find some funding, but I’m not too sure when we’re going to land on a date for that.”
The second option, the LHIN, likely has been removed from the picture with the province set to adopt a new healthcare model.
“I’m not too sure where that’s all going to land,” admitted Herridge. “However, the good thing is the province does recognize that we have a mental health issue in our society.
“Fortunate for us here in St. Thomas, our council overwhelmingly supports it. Our Police Services Board is supporting having a mental health worker here.
“It’s just a matter of where do we find sustainable funding to keep this going, without having to go month to month or you know, three months and then try and find some more money.”
Herridge is of the opinion municipalities should be knocking at the province’s door and asking, “What are we doing with regard to mental health and the issues we are facing in each of our communities?”
St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston nailed it when he stressed, “This is healthcare funding, not police funding.”
“You’re right, this shouldn’t all fall on to the hands of police,” Herridge agreed. “And yet, that’s what’s happening.”
“Our community partners are overwhelmed, they’re underfunded and struggling as well. And when they’re struggling with what they need to do to support people, it falls on us.”
However, he is quick to assure, “Even if we have mental health clinicians in place, we’re still going to show up and ensure safety. Safety is first.
“And then we provide the service as required to get this person on the right path and get the help they need.
“But we shouldn’t always be the ones that are tied up on mental health-related calls for the entire duration. Let’s have someone who can provide the person with the assistance, support and referral follow-up that they need to get on a better path.”
As a point of reference, in 2018 the police service responded to 1,400 calls related to mental health, with Paterson interacting with 564 clients, 25 per cent of those involving youth.
And, those interactions are not usually a one-time stop.
Patterson often provides on-going support and referrals to ensure the individual is well taken care of.
“It’s almost like multiplying those numbers,” Herridge pointed out, “by a certain factor, because it’s not just one meeting.”
And, Herridge emphasized, it is not just the police service that is overwhelmed.
“Our community partners are overwhelmed, they’re underfunded and struggling as well. And when they’re struggling with what they need to do to support people, it falls on us.
“There’s a multitude of issues that need to be dealt with, not only just to get some funding for our mental health conditions, but also to get funding for our community partners so they can do their job.”
There’s a domino effect at play, Herridge indicated.
“We’re dealing with all these other issues and until we get a handle on these social issues, our calls for service will keep going up.
“But, if you deal with it on the front end and ensure the community partners have the tools to deal with the issues out there, then our calls for service should go down.
“And that should have an impact on our budget. But this is no overnight fix.”
GETTING IT RIGHT WITH FEES
Are the rates too high or is the city undercutting itself?
Establishing competitive rates for services offered by the city, especially for soft services like recreation, is always open to vigorous debate on both sides of the playing field.
Does the city keep rental rates low to ensure the rinks and ball diamonds are busy or should it deflect much of the burden away from ratepayers by keeping the charges in line with neighbouring municipalities?
City council will delve into parks and recreation services fees Monday (April 1)
when members will be asked to approve a new rate structure proposed by director Ross Tucker that calls for a three per cent hike for this year.
Tucker’s new schedule is based upon “a municipal cost comparison which also takes into consideration population, facilities and services offered.”
Generally, the flashpoint in these deliberations has been ice rental fees, and under the proposed structure, the city will charge $216.71/hour (excluding GST) for prime time ice rental which, in particular, impacts the Jr. B Stars.
Of the five comparative cities, only London charges more at $229.50/hr. At the low end of the scale is Strathroy at $169.47/hr.
However, non-prime time ice rental in St. Thomas, as proposed, would see the city with the third lowest rate, $123.15 per hour, with London again the highest at $183.50/hr.
Strathroy is likewise at the bottom end with an hourly rate of $86.73.
It’s a balancing act, with user groups freely willing to move elsewhere – including to Belmont, Port Stanley and Aylmer – if the rates don’t meet their budgets.
Remember the situation with the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs?
And, these are strictly the ice rental rates.
You have to be just as sensitive with ball diamond rates and what about fees to be charged at the new 1Password Park?
Don’t envy mayor and councillors dealing with this hot potato.
POLICE SERVICE NOT ON THE GRAVY TRAIN
In an online budget survey undertaken by the city in 2017 – albeit with only 176 respondents – the three services where participants wanted to see funding decreased were fire, police, and transit.
The exercise offered ratepayers an opportunity to record their input into 2018 budget deliberations for council’s consideration.
Police Chief Herridge is sensitive to that feedback and so when this year’s operating budget came in at $12.5 million, 5.42 per cent higher than the previous year, there no doubt would be a certain portion of the population left grumbling, or worse.
Salaries and benefits account for 94% of the overall police budget, over which Herridge has no control.
This year he is dealing with a service that has an authorized strength of 72 officers and so Herridge draws a comparison to the Woodstock Police Service with 65 officers, according to their website.
Woodstock is often used by the city as a comparative and Herridge notes, as per a recent story in the Woodstock Sentinel Review, that municipality’s police budget for this year is $2.4 million higher than the St. Thomas service.
Herridge cautions comparing budgets is not necessarily an apples-to-apples exercise, but he notes “What police officers and staff are getting paid is pretty close and we are very lean here. We don’t have a lot of extra gravy.
“This is how tightly run it is here. So, I forwarded this on to council to show you’re getting a pretty good bang for your buck when you compare us to another municipality our size.”
Yesterday (March 29) Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP and transportation minister Jeff Yurek announced $1.62 billion in shared funding for “commuter-friendly projects.”
St. Thomas is one of 87 municipalities outside the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) “able to nominate their most critical public transit projects for consideration under the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP),” according to Yurek.
He adds, “This stream will fund construction, expansion, and improvement of public transit networks.”
And it is painfully obvious how ratepayers and city council feel about the current state of St. Thomas Transit.
The city would be eligible for approximately $2.2 million in federal funding, with the province kicking in $1.8 million toward public transit infrastructure.
To receive that financial assistance, the city would have to provide funding in the range of $1.5 million.
Yurek indicates, “The first intake of the public transit stream of the 10-year infrastructure program will unlock up to $1.62 billion in joint provincial and federal funding for critical public transit outside the GTHA.”
In total, up to $30 billion in combined federal, provincial, and local investments in Ontario communities will be part of a 10-year funding program.
The city has eight weeks to nominate projects for consideration under the ICIP program.
And then there is the whole matter of regional transit. St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston has advocated for a closer relationship with London – including talks with Mayor Ed Holder -and the Municipality of Central Elgin and Township of Southwold to explore the possibility of regional transportation links beyond the St. Thomas city limits. At last month’s State of the Municipalities luncheon, Preston said the reality of regional transportation “is a given. If we don’t work together, then we are just dreaming.” Yesterday’s funding opportunity is in addition to the announcement made earlier this month of $369,992 in provincial dollars – a one-time grant – to assist St. Thomas “in improving service delivery by finding smarter, more efficient ways to spend money that help those who need it most while respecting taxpayer dollars,” according to Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
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