Earlier this month, the province announced the St. Thomas Police Service is to receive $786,925 in funding for community-based safety and policing initiatives.
That should be tempered by the fact funding is spread over three years.
A portion of the money will support an initiative to deal with a modern-day reality in the majority of communities across Ontario while the remainder will support a local program that is a throwback to policing from a bygone era.
In the first scenario, the funding will allow for a uniform officer to remain with the Mobile Outreach Support Team (MOST) to ensure a public safety presence.
As Chief Chris Herridge observed a year ago in this corner, “Our community is facing increasing social-related issues resulting in a rise in crime and a feeling of being unsafe in our downtown.
“We immediately need a ‘boots on the ground’ professional health team (mental health, medical, addictions, housing, etc.) in our downtown in partnership with the St. Thomas Police Service who will assist when public safety is a concern.
“The police require a team of experts so we can triage these health-related calls and the appropriate assistance/supports can be provided.”
The MOST team, according to St. Thomas Police, “provides early and proactive intervention, de-escalation and safe transition to appropriate care for persons in crisis or at risk of crisis due to mental health or addictions issues.
A portion of the funding will support the foot patrol team, which aims to increase police visibility in busy areas, enhance a feeling of safety for residents and visitors and build bridges between the community and police.
More on this team in a few moments.
We talked with Herridge this week about the two programs to benefit from funding and while he is greatly appreciative of the financial support he advises, “We need to push forward more funding provincially for all of us to enhance our mental health teams.
“For us locally, we have two workers (clinicians) from CMHA and they cannot touch on the amount of call demand that we have when it comes to mental health.
“We are competing against each other for mental health funding for an issue that is throughout the province. When mental health, addictions and poverty and homelessness are touching on all of us in policing, then we need to find a better way to share the funding.”
He adds, “They are touching on about 40 per cent of our calls for service. They are doing fantastic work and making a difference, but we definitely need to have more funding so that we can enhance and add more workers to the team.
“I’m not asking for a 24/7/365 answer to the issue, but at least more than just two members on the team that are addressing these issues.
“I certainly am thankful for the funding we did receive to sustain what we currently have in place which is important.”
The frustration is the police service in St. Thomas and elsewhere across the province have to apply for this funding every two or three years.”
He stresses, “We are competing against each other for mental health funding for an issue that is throughout the province. When mental health, addictions and poverty and homelessness are touching on all of us in policing, then we need to find a better way to share the funding.
“It’s a need everywhere and we need to come up with a provincial model to address this issue.
“Yes, it is for policing, but for me, more importantly, it’s for those members of our community who need that front-line, boots-on-the-ground assistance and resources when they need it.”
Herridge speaks of collateral fallout, “which is the property crime. And the behavioural issues we have in our downtown.”
That last point is a natural segue into the food patrol component of the provincial funding.
“Which allows us to enhance our foot patrol presence in the downtown with the community resource initiative.”
“And now, we’ve come to realize foot patrol is a very valuable part of policing and a very valuable part of providing service to the community.”
This new initiative involves hiring a team of four special constables with recruiting now underway.
“We’ve had nearly 40 applications. We’re seeing some people with life experience and related skills. We’re focussing on people with a social service background, dealing with people who have experience with mental health and addictions.
“I’m very confident we’re going to have an excellent team in place that can help out in the downtown and build those relationships with the merchants, our residents and those experiencing vulnerabilities.”
Part of that involves having the team in place downtown over a longer period each day.
It’s a return to old-style policing, which steers Herridge into recounting his early days with the police service in St. Thomas
“What was old is new again. When I started and long before my time, a foot patrol presence in the downtown and throughout St. Thomas was the norm. You actually walked foot patrol before you got a cruiser.
“That went by the wayside for a little bit when other demands in policing took over and you have to spread your services to other areas.
“And now, we’ve come to realize foot patrol is a very valuable part of policing and a very valuable part of providing service to the community.
“You drive a car in the summer, you’ve got the air conditioning on and windows are up. In the wintertime, you’ve got the heater on and the windows are up. What is the opportunity to engage with the public?
“When people think about policing, they think about enforcement, charges, being arrested and tickets. Foot patrol is the complete opposite.
“It’s about building community relationships. And foot patrol in our downtown is about enhancing the value of our downtown. Wanting people to come downtown. Wanting people to come and do business downtown, provide an excellent business space, a safe business working space for those merchants who are in the downtown.”
“We invest in the resources to keep our community healthy. That’s community development. It moves your community forward.”
It makes good business sense, notes Herridge.
“If we can provide that atmosphere where people want to come and visit our downtown, whether it’s from outside or people who live in our city and want to visit downtown and do business, that’s good for the merchants and it’s good for our residents.
“When I go out on foot patrol and I see a lot of people in the downtown, or if I walk evenings and see a lot of restaurants busy with people, then that’s good.
“That’s a healthy downtown and a healthy community. And, that’s how we build. We invest in the resources to keep our community healthy. That’s community development. It moves your community forward.”
And, in the process, concludes Herridge, “People know the city is safe, we have great relationships with the police service, great relationships with other stakeholders.
“People are going to want to continue coming to our city and continue to invest in our city.”
ANIMAL SERVICES: THIS IS A SERVICE WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR
Members of council were thrilled Tuesday with the announcement of a $1 million donation from Sara Teare to kick off fundraising efforts for the city’s new animal services shelter.
Most revealing were the comments from councillors referencing years of inaction on moving forward with the much-needed facility.
Coun. Steve Wookey kicked off the discussion with a groaner of a pun.
“I would like this fundraising campaign to be on a short leash. And I mean that because a donor has given a million dollars.
“I would love for people to give us more money, but I don’t want this to drag on for too long because I would love to get this going as soon as possible.
“We’ve been talking about his for eight years, it’s badly needed. It’s great news, but let’s get this moving.”
Coun. Steve Peters added, “How do we keep this process moving along? I want to hear from Justin (Justin Lawrence, director of engineering) on how we can not lose momentum.”
“This is a service we are responsible for and we have to provide. And I don’t think it’s fair to attach a rider that the very people who do all the volunteer work to take care of the animals, rescue them and look after them for us need to come up with the funds to do the project.”
Because that is exactly what has happened over a much longer period than eight years.
Complete inertia at city hall on an urgent matter that should have been addressed long ago.
“The architect is the first step,” advised Lawrence. “And at that point, we can establish a budget. There is a budget but it is only $300,000.”
A telling statement on the priority of a new shelter and the insistence on the need for fundraising before any work proceeds.
Coun. Jeff Kohler concurred with his two peers in stressing, “I think we should get this moving as fast as possible.
“At the end of the day, if we have to, use the infrastructure reserve or working reserve to ensure this building gets going.
“This is quite the gift we have and I don’t want to see it lost if we decide to drag our feet on this.”
At this point in the discussion, Coun. Gary Clarke cut to the chase to remind members and those watching the meeting, “This is a service we are responsible for and we have to provide.
“And I don’t think it’s fair to attach a rider that the very people who do all the volunteer work to take care of the animals, rescue them and look after them for us need to come up with the funds to do the project.
“I’m not sure how we even arrived at a fundraising figure. I don’t think we’ve actually agreed on that number.
“I want to make sure that’s not one of the impediments to this project. It’s our responsibility and we need to honour that and not let it slow down the project.”
On the fundraising front, flash back to December of 2020 when then-city manager Wendell Graves noted, “If the community can make it happen, then it will happen.”
“At the skatepark, there was supposed to be a fundraising initiative for that and that was at least a $600,000 cost and there was no fundraising but the project still went ahead.”
At the time, Coun. Joan Rymal responded, “I do think the fundraising effort is really almost a barrier to getting the animal shelter re-done.
“The animal shelter is just another piece of infrastructure like the police station, the fire hall and the social services building.
“It’s another piece of infrastructure and you’ve got funds through the infrastructure renewal program.”
Going back to the 2021 capital budget, what should appear on the not recommended for approval list but a new animal shelter at $1.5 million.
It came with the notation, that this project may be considered during 2021 should the fundraising goals be achieved.
It was also left off the 2020 budget list.
And in January of 2020, Mayor Joe Preston cautioned, “If you’d like us to do more than remodel the old shelter, there would need to be some fundraising done.”
Returning to Tuesday’s council meeting, the comments of Sara Teare’s mother – that would be Coun. Rymal – were the icing on the cake.
“We have been trying to fundraise for a couple of years. It has been very challenging.
“At the skatepark, there was supposed to be a fundraising initiative for that and that was at least a $600,000 cost and there was no fundraising but the project still went ahead.
“The Centennial ball field was over a million dollars and the fundraising was only $70,000 and the project still went ahead.
“So this (the $1 million gift) is 40 per cent of the fundraising and I would really like to see the project move forward.
“I would really like to see a firm motion that this council moves the project forward and it becomes a done deal.
When questioned, Lawrence felt he could provide a fairly accurate budget before mid-August when council could potentially fall into a lame-duck position before the fall municipal election and would not be able to approve any big-ticket expenses.
To reiterate the comments of Coun. Wookey put this project on a short leash.
FLEXIBILITY IN GRANTING GRANTS
A surprise turn of events at Tuesday’s council meeting during debate on community grants.
Thanks to city council overriding a staff recommendation, Big Brothers Big Sisters of St. Thomas Elgin will receive a $3,500 community grant.
The funds will be used to renovate a room in their office to provide a space for young people and their mentors to meet, participate in activities and relax.
Coun. Kohler suggested the grant request did fit funding criteria.
“Especially in light of COVID because they are looking at making a safe, accessible place for their mentors and their kids to meet.
“It’s not something that is for their normal operating budget. It is a capital request.”
Coun. Clarke added, “I see it as a bit of an exception to the rule we have in place.
“I think it’s a one-time COVID-related issue.”
The city’s director of finance, Dan Sheridan had recommended the grant be rejected because it did not support a new operation at the agency.
POINT TO PONDER
While it is certainly positive news the animal services centre will now proceed thanks to the $1 million gift from Sara Teare, there is more to consider as work proceeds.
Without experienced, competent and caring staff backed by positive and proactive direction, policies and support from the city, the new facility is just a building.
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