Salary levels for emergency responders are unsustainable and unfair; city still has to pay them. Mayor wants to see a change.



September 1, 2013

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON.  The Mayor went to Ottawa recently to schmooze with other Mayors and to bend the ear of Ontario Cabinet ministers who attended the Association of Municipalities in Ontario conference; an annual event.

Average salary increases between 2005 and 2010 were 27% for firemen, 19% for police and 41% for EMS - unsustainable and unfair says Mayor.Mayor Goldring is a member of LUMCO – a subset of the AMO organization made up of mayors from larger cities.  LUMCO – Large Urban Mayors of Ontario have a particularly messy and at times nasty issue that is difficult for them to harp on at home but one they need to come to grips with – and that is the rising cost of early responders.

Police, fireman and emergency services people are costing us a fortune but no one wants to come out and say that – one does have to get elected and suggesting we could get by with fewer police officers and fewer fire trucks and the fireman are back faster than a jack rabbit with what that will do to their response times.

All true – but the municipalities want some fairness and a lot of streamlining to the current interest arbitration process.

According to Mayor Goldring, who gets much of his data from AMO, between 2005 and 2010, salary increases for the municipal sector hovered around 5% while increases for firemen (not just men any more is it?) were 27%; police averaged 19% and EMS people saw increases of 41%.

Unsustainable and, according to Goldring “unfair”.  The Mayor is quick to add that the city is well served by its first responders.  That phrase could be turned around to read that the first responders are very well served by the city.  There are many, many members of the fire department on the province’s Sunshine list – that document that sets out who earns more than $100,000 a year.

The fireman in Burlington, and we assume across the province, have figured out how to get their claims in front of the politicians and keep them there – and so far they have been successful. So much so that the current provincial government doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to change the way the salary game is played for these essential people.

For the first year in some time a small delegation of firemen took part in the annual city budget public consultation.

At the 2011 Burlington public consultation meetings on the budget the firemen attended as a group and sat at one table and ensured council members heard their story.  Sometime later there were eight to ten firemen in the back row of city council chambers when the budget was being passed.

These are big guys and there is a threatening sense to ten or more of them being in one place.  Firemen have as much right as anyone else to demonstrate to make their point; something they did very effectively for Dalton McGuinty when he was running for office the last provincial.  Whenever he stepped off a bus there were two lines of firemen creating path for him – all wearing “Fireman for McGuinty T-shirts”, great optics and good on them for knowing how to get attention.

The municipal politicians who have to come up with the money to pay these men and women now have to pay very close attention and look for ways to get what Mayor Goldring calls for some fairness in the salary game.

Mayor is quick to add that the city is well served by its first responders.  That phrase could be turned around to read that the first responders are very well served by the city. Burlington has a union contract with the firemen that has been ‘in the works” since 2011.  “Some of these interest arbitrations can take as long as five years to settle” explains the Mayor.  And all too frequently he adds, “the settlement is retroactive and there is no reason given for the arbitration decision made.”

The province’s economy is better today than it was in 2011 but it is still a little on the wobbly side.  City council has to find the money to meet the arbitration decision and at the same time keep the other union contracts in line.  All this, at a time when the gap between union pay rates and that available in the private sector is widening.  Add to that the very significant pension plans that municipal civil servants have gotten for themselves and you begin to understand why politicians go gray – quickly.

With the province now being run by a minority government politics gets in the way with the Tories looking for whatever advantage they can exploit and the New Democrats doing everything they can to ensure their union members get and keep as much as they can.  And the Premier wakes up every morning hoping she can avoid a confidence vote.  Which may be the way the game is played at Queen’s Park but try and make that point at city council when the budget is being debated and the Mayor talks of his wanting to keep tax increases below 10% during the his first four-year mandate.  If the arbitration decision comes in before the budget is made final, watch for a big gulp on the part of the people in the finance department.

In a letter Progressive Conservative House Leader Jim Wilson sent a letter to his counterparts he said that: “Exceedingly generous contracts being handed out to emergency workers through arbitration system, are forcing municipal leaders to choose between raising taxes and taking fire trucks and police cruisers off the road.”  There was a hint of the possibility of some movement but it didn’t go much further than that.  Adam Radwanski said in the Globe and Mail that: “To talk to the governing Liberals and the Tories since the letter was sent is to sense that they are once again about to demonstrate their complete inability to work together – overlooking past signs of common ground in the process.

Did the Mayor manage to mention our first responder salary problems to the Premier while she was in town last Saturday?

An obvious solution would be for the Liberals to introduce legislation this fall that would implement the arbitration changes from the 2012 budget, and for the Tories to support it.  In an interview, however, Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi sounded disinclined to do that. The government’s focus, he said, is on bringing municipal leaders and emergency workers together to “develop consensus.” Other Liberals have echoed that imminent legislation is unlikely.

That the two parties are further from consensus on this issue than they have been in years can likely be chalked up to strategic calculations reports Radwanski.

 “Both sides are playing with fire. Ms. Wynne is at risk of alienating key allies, such as Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, who has been among those leading the charge for arbitration reform. And if Mr. Hudak is seen as an obstacle to changes rather than an effective advocate for them, that could cause grief for his largely rural caucus among mayors whose small towns are being stretched especially thin.

Voters will have to decide first who should run the province before any significant decisions get made.

“If that is not enough to encourage co-operation, the simple matter of fairness should be. Even as the province had some recent success in freezing the wages of its employees, municipalities were getting stuck with double-digit salary increases in contracts awarded by arbitrators. As Mr. Wilson said in his letter, that is just not sustainable.”

Radwanski suggests that “By at least returning to the common ground they seemed to find last year, the Liberals and Tories could restore a tiny bit of faith in the minority legislature’s ability to address Ontarians’ needs. Instead, they seem poised to provide another example of its inability to do so.”

From a purely municipal perspective this is as good a reason as any to get on with a province wide election and determine just who is going to run the province – together the three stooges certainly can’t.


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