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MD unsure if vacant home checks should continue

Is there value to checking in on MD of Bonnyville residents’ vacant homes? MD council members are undecided on whether the Public Safety Department should continue to operate its Vacant Home Checks Program, or if it should be dropped all together.
MD Peace Officers
MD of Bonnyville Director of Public Safety Luis Gandolfi seeks input from council on Vacant Home Checks Program on April 27.

BONNYVILE – At its peak, the MD of Bonnyville’s Public Safety Department had 130 residents sign up for its Vacant Home Checks Program in 2019. 

Luis Gandolfi, the director of the Public Safety with the municipality, expressed to council on April 27, that the program has seen a steep decline in uptake in the program since the start of the pandemic. 

Under these circumstances, council was asked for direction as to whether or not the program for vacant home checks should continue to be funded and operated by the MD’s Public Safety Department. 

“The VHCP, at its peak, was a very strong program,” Gandolfi told council, indicating that continuing the program now may not be the most efficient use of officers' time. 

“Since the program started, Public Safety has enrolled a total of 266 homes into the (Vacant Home Checks Program) and visited these homes an average of approximately 7-10 times each, totaling approximately 2,000 visits,” he outlined.  

Data from June 2018 to December 2018 showed 12 residents had signed up from the program, and in 2019, 130 registered. Following the onset of the pandemic, 88 residents had signed up for vacant home checks in 2020.  

That number dropped even further in 2021 with only 31 residents registering for the program. 

So far in 2022, five residents have signed up to have officers check on their houses while away. 

With about 10 minutes allotted per visit, officers have invested roughly 335 hours into the program since its creation. 

Taking into consideration the unprecedented limitations of many Canadians’ ability to travel over the last two years, council felt there could be an uptick in the program in the future. 

Coun. Dana Swiggart said the program “shows a presence out in the area and out in lots of rural areas that we probably would not have constables going to in general... Why not have patrols in areas that they normally wouldn't patrol?” 

Swiggart further noted that if the program was dropped by the Public Safety Department, it would not translate to a reduction in policing costs for the municipality. 

“(Officers) are being paid hourly anyway, so it's not that we are saving money by cancelling the program. We are still paying these guys to drive out there, they would just happen to not be stopping by at that house.” 

Reiterating why the discussions around the vacant home checks program were brought before council, CAO Al Hoggan stated RCMP statistics received from both the rural Bonnyville and rural Cold Lake detachments don't prove, one way or the other, whether the program has made any difference to crime reduction. 

"The question really is not whether this is a good or bad program (but) it does take 335 hours. I agree there is no financial saving (by cancelling the program), but is there something else council would like the Public Safety Department to do with those 335 hours?” Hoggan posed to council. 

RCMP property crime reports 

Statistics of key property crime indicators for the rural division of both Bonnyville RCMP and the Cold Lake RCMP detachments, which were additionally presented by Gandolfi, reflect the overall trends in crime in relation to the pandemic more so than the effects of the VHCP. 

In 2020, both Bonnyville and Cold Lake RCMP saw a drop in break and enters, theft, and possession of stolen goods compared to the year prior. 

Only vehicle theft had increased by roughly two per cent during that same period in both jurisdictions. 

However, data gathered from January to September of 2021 show that some property crime offences have now increased. 

Statistics out of Bonnyville detachment’s third quarter show in 2021 that break and enters had increased by 10 per cent compared to the 2020 third quarter, vehicle theft increased by two per cent, possession of stolen goods increased by two per cent, while general theft decreased by 10 per cent. 

Cold Lake’s data shows that break and enters had increased by eight per cent, theft increased by 40 per cent, and possession of stolen goods increased by 10 per cent within the jurisdiction in 2021, compared to 2020 during the same period. However, Cold Lake did see a noticeable decrease in vehicle theft of 12 per cent.  

“It's a difficult conversation to have at this point simply because the reality of what we are going into in the next year versus where we've been the year prior are going to be totally different,” acknowledged Gandolfi. 

“With COVID, there is very little travel, there's very little demand for the program, that demand really petered off and the program was sort of floundering with not a whole lot going on with it. Could that change in the future? Potentially it could.” 

Council approved a motion to table any decisions on whether to keep the Vacant Home Checks Program running until the Public Safety Department presents its Level of Service Review, which is expected to be presented in the next few months at a regular council meeting.

Jazmin Tremblay

About the Author: Jazmin Tremblay

Jazmin completed a minor in journalism at Hanze University in the Netherlands and completed her Communication Studies degree from MacEwan University with a major in journalism.
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