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Ottawa police board opts to phase in background check fee for volunteers

The Ottawa Police Services Board on Monday evening decided to reduce the fee for background checks for employment purposes from $90 to $65 this fall and introduce a charge for records checks requested by individuals looking to do volunteer work in the city.

Beginning on Sept. 1, 2019, the police department will charge $10 for volunteer checks and increase the fee to $20 on Jan. 1, 2020.

Staff at the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) say $20 is the average fee charged by other police departments across Ontario for the same service, but several community groups argued on Monday that the cost will deter residents from volunteering and make it harder for cash-strapped organizations to recruit help.

“There’s no easy solution,” Coun. Diane Deans, who chairs the police services board, said. “As much as I personally would love to see [free volunteer checks] continue … with 90,000 police checks having to be done every year, that costs money.”

“We have to make some tough decisions.”

In October 2018, the police services board — under different leadership and membership — voted to maintain free checks for volunteers and increase the cost of the service for job seekers from $15 to $90 for 2019, which would subsidize the cost of processing the requests for volunteers.

The board this year asked OPS staff to come up with some alternative options after many groups, including not-for-profits and other community organizations, argued the new $90 fee “created a hardship.” About 70 per cent of document requests are related to not-for-profits, according to the police service.

On Monday, Deans said she’s proud that Ottawa has never asked volunteers to pay for their records checks but argued the “previous fee structure just no longer works” because the volume of these requests has ballooned in recent years.

The number of checks processed by the police department doubled to 90,000 between 2013 and 2018, according to Jeff Letourneau, acting director general and chief financial officer of the OPS. Over the past two years, the police service has, on average, has churned out 83,000 background checks annually, a staff report submitted to the board noted.

Asked by Deans what triggered the spike in records checks, Letourneau cited requests related to ride-sharing service Uber and participation in youth sports as two main drivers. Ottawa’s growing population has also contributed, he added.

OPS staff on Monday presented three options for background fee structures to the police services board. The first option was to maintain the status quo — the $90 fee for employment checks and free volunteer checks.

The second option was to maintain free volunteer checks and use $400,000 set out in the 2019 municipal budget to reduce employment background checks to $75.

The third option — recommended by staff and chosen by the board — was to reduce employment check fees from $90 to $65 and use the $400,000 to offset the introduction of the volunteer fees, before bumping them to $20 next year.

Letourneau said the police service conducted public consultations on the background fee structures and invited residents to fill out an online questionnaire. The department received 3,094 responses in total; 64 per cent of respondents were volunteers, he said.

Just over half of respondents were in favour of the second option: reducing employment checks to $75 and keeping volunteer checks free, according to Letourneau.

But Deans said she was concerned that option wouldn’t be “sustainable.”

Police services board vice-chair Sandy Smallwood noted the background fee structures have been “a really challenging item for the board to deal with.”

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