On Wednesday, the Budget Committee of Halifax Regional Council will consider whether to make background checks for students and volunteers free, as they are everywhere else across the province. In Halifax, approximately 11,700 volunteers a year pay $30 to police or an online provider to determine if the individual has any prior convictions or pardons for sex crimes. Employees pay $50 for the same service, with those applications hovering around 20,000 in each of the past two years.

In November, the Halifax Examiner published an article using 2015 data from a report to the Board of Police Commissioners which showed the fees the public were paying represented between a 42 per cent and 136 per cent markup on the cost of delivering the record check. The average cost of service was pegged at $21.13 at that time, suggesting record checks were an easy source of revenue being used to subsidize or offset higher wages for police officers.

HRM Police refused to provide more up-to-date information on the grounds it would require too much time and effort. The Examiner filed a Freedom of Information request, which yielded some additional although incomplete figures. The good news is that the report HRM Police prepared for a meeting of the Budget Committee this week provides a thorough picture of the revenues, expenses, and profit related to background checks carried out over the last four years. (See pages 5,6, and 7 , here.)

The bottom line is eliminating the fee for volunteers/students would cost HRM approximately $300,000 a year, based on data from the last four years. That’s chump change compared to the size of the actual police budget. HRM’s proposed police budget now sits at $89,270,000, with most of that dedicated to paying police salaries and benefits. Dropping the fee for volunteers would mean a $240,000 annual cut to the police budget. HRM would see a drop of about $60,000 a year because the fees collected by the Halifax District RCMP go directly into General Revenue. The report prepared by the police department to the Budget Committee raises the following point:

It is also worthy of note that in the event Criminal Record Checks are delivered free of charge, it is safe to assume that the actual number of such Checks would increase due to increased demand.

Employees of several volunteer agencies interviewed by the Examiner last November said fees are a barrier to people on fixed incomes who don’t even consider participating. Often the volunteer agency assumes the cost in order to recruit and retain people.

If Council were to consider dropping all fees for background checks, including those requested by employees who pay $50 in HRM, the loss of revenue would be between $683,000 and $930,000 a year. That is not something being proposed. In fact, the report prepared for the Budget Committee questions just how much value organizations should actually place in this procedure they are paying for.

It would appear that a number of organizations have increased their reliance on this process as a form of background investigation. It is important to highlight that CRCs (Criminal Record Checks) are simply a snapshot in time of a criminal conviction and may do very little to help organizations understand the quality of the candidate before them, including their ethics and reliability. The CRC should form but one component to a meaningful selection process. As well, any individual who is unable to receive a CRC due to a criminal record may well be able to contribute in a meaningful and legal manner to any organization in spite of a criminal conviction.

The Budget Committee will revisit the entire Police Budget and its impact on the city’s tax rate — proposed to increase by 1.9 per cent next year — on Wednesday.

A smiling white woman with short silver hair wearing dark rimmed glasses and a bright blue blazer.

Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. I’m still gagging on the size of the police budget. Nearly 90 million, really? Yet another indication that municipal officials continue to suffer under – and perpetuate – the delusion that Halifax is a big city. Last I heard, it’s barely got 400,000 people, but you’d never know it from the spending that goes on.

  2. I’m disgusted the police departments and the city get away with this practice which can only be called gouging. Non-profit agencies may well be required by insurance companies to ask for these background checks, but as with other on-line “services” (read on-line ticket sales, etc.) there is little to no work conducted to produce the computer readout.

    There is a small army of volunteers (11,700) supporting Halifax citizens who rely on their help. If most other municipalities can cover the cost of these security, Halifax can.

    Thanks to Jennifer Henderson for this story.

  3. Before preaching to organizations about the value of background checks, one might want to ask *why* they are requiring background checks. I bet most would say it’s a requirement from their insurers that they have no control over.

  4. I would support eliminating the fee for volunteers and students, and reducing it to cost-recovery levels for employees. But the text of the article does not seem to match with the headline.

    The text says there are 11,700 volunteer requests a year at $30, so the revenue generated would be $351,000. I assume this is where the $300,000 potential loss come from. But this is not the same as saying they make $300,000 in profit, as the headline claims. If the requests cost $21.13 each, the profit would be $8.87 each or around $100,000.

    Is $300,000 the revenue being charged per year (which would be lost if they were free), or is it the profit?

    1. There is more revenue coming in from employee requests, and the fee is $50 for them. So one assumes that they make up the difference. In fact, if you go to the link for the budget report, you’ll see the actual numbers on page 5. For 2017-18, employee requests alone totaled $704,086.96. The two types of background requests brought in a whopping $899,634.78, but the cost of the requests totaled $554,462.57(“total expenses”), leaving a profit of $345,172.21.
      What is annoying in that report is that it goes on to look at options for either charging less or nothing at all – and labels the resulting figure in bright yellow as “loss”, under “impact to the budget”. This is rather misleading, as it is a “loss” only in relation to the current profit, not actual loss.
      For example, Option A looks at charging nothing for volunteers, which leaves only the $704,086.96 from employee requests. As the expenses remain the same as before, $554,462.57, Option A would still yield a profit, albeit lower, of $149,624.38. Not bad, really. But the chart shows “impact to budget” as -$195,547.83. This means the city would have made $195,547.83 *less profit* than it did. NO actual loss to the budget. But it’s the -$195,547.83 that is highlighted, so Option A and all further options all appear to have a negative impact on the budget, and naturally, a negative impact suggests loss. I wager many, if not most of the counselors will not pick up on the distinction and won’t want to change the fee structure. HRM staff are nothing if not clever bastards.

  5. This is why I find it SO undemocratic and offensive that our council decided to donate money to the Hospice Society. I agree we need a hospice and I have donated individually. It is fundamentally wrong to take yet more money from youth and youth sports and donate it to the aging and elderly.

    These checks should be provided as part of the mandate of the Police. What part of protecting children from predators doesn’t fall within the mandate of the Police Department?

    Our council has lost the plot on its role and its priorities.

    1. It is fundamentally wrong to take yet more money from youth and youth sports and donate it to the aging and elderly. What kinda of screwed up logic is this? Also hospice care is not only for the elderly. Why should any worthwhile cause have more importance than another? I just don’t see any logic here.

      1. We are all free to donate money to the causes we choose. It is NOT okay for the municipal government to vote to donte our money, especially when the recipient clearly falls within the provincial jurisdiction.

        I agree with you. Why should we charge youth sports volunteers for a service that falls clearly within our municipal police mandate and then turn around and donate money to a health care facility that falls squarely within the responsibilities of the province