Bruce Timms is ready for a fight.
The St. Catharines regional councillor is proposing Niagara Region set aside $200,000 yearly to create a war chest to stand its ground against rising Niagara Regional Police budgets — the bulk of which cover salaries and benefits.
The money would be spent defending the Niagara Regional Police Services Board’s budget position before the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services (OCCOPS) should the board and the police service reach an impasse.
Since the Region funds the NRP, the regional government would also be required to cover the police service’s expenses at OCCOPS.
Timms said in the more than 23 years he has been on council, the police board has not appealed a Niagara Regional Police Service budget to OCCOPS because of the costs and the belief the civilian commission would side with police.
The crux of the issue with the police budget, Timms said, are police officer salaries and benefits that eat up more than 90% of the NRP budget.
When the board and Niagara Region Police Association — the union representing most NRP staff — reach impasse during contract talks and the question of raises is settled in binding arbitration, arbitrators do not take a municipality’s ability to pay into consideration but instead side with police, Timms said.
In 2013, an arbitrator awarded police a pay increase of 3.05% retroactive to January 2012. Subsequent to that arbitration award, the police board and police association reached a deal in which cop pay went up 2.6% in 2013, 2.5% in 2014 and will increase 2.5% in 2015.
By that time, Timms noted, a first-class constable’s salary will be $92,500. That last contract was the first time in 10 years one was reached without arbitration.
Timms said in the past there has been little give from the police side in contract negotiations because of a belief the police board will not pursue the NRP budget as a whole to OCCOPS.
His proposed Niagara Region Ontario Civilian Police Commission Appeal Reserve Fund would signal to the NRP that “the gun is loaded, we’re ready for a fight.”
“It is really letting them know that we’re, as a council, going to put our money where our mouth is when we say the taxpayer can’t afford an increase in the police budget,” Timms said.
He said he wants a two-year freeze on police raises.
“I think they can handle a two-year freeze,” Timms said.
Police association president Cliff Priest said pay increases awarded via arbitration have been “fair and just.”
“We have proven time and time again the arbitration process is fair,” he said, noting the arbitrator in 2012, at the Region’s request, gave his reasoning for the award in a 39-page report.
“It was a fair and just award,” Priest said. “Mr. Timms has a different opinion — we all understand it’s an election year. If he wants to take $200,000 of taxpayers’ money every year to put aside … by the time we are next to be at the bargaining table, there would be $600,000 of public money sitting in a fund that, if they come to the table and freely negotiate, would more than likely not be required.”
Priest put the onus of arbitration on the Region.
“The arbitration has always been forced by the Region’s lack of willingness to negotiate,” he said.
“We don’t seem to be at that stage anymore. We freely negotiated our last contract. We don’t ever want to go to arbitration, but we are not scared to go to arbitration. And if he believes by threatening us that will stop us from going to arbitration, that is incorrect. We will do what’s in the best interest of our members.”
Thorold regional Coun. Henry D’Angela, who is chair of the police services board, said the board has not discussed the motion and has not taken a position on it.
But as a councillor, he said, he will not be supporting the motion.
“It’s a poor utilization of taxpayer dollars because you’re just allocating it for a fight,” D’Angela said. “My motto is, it’s always better to work through a problem as best you can and not spend excess dollars fighting it in a hearing or court situation. Because it gets costly for both sides, and nobody really benefits from it.”
NRP Deputy Chief Bryan MacCulloch said Tuesday upper management strives to deliver budgets within the target allowance of the Region. “The police service is working diligently with our police services board to deliver a responsible budget that will fall within the guidance of the Region,” he said. “We’re optimistic we can continue to do that.”
Timms’ motion has been referred to the corporate services committee, which is next scheduled to meet Sept. 3.