By Rob Houle
Niagara Regional Police officers are wondering why some members of regional council want to go to war with them.
Recently, Niagara Region Coun. Bruce Timms has been spearheading the creation of a reserve fund that would see the Region set aside $200,000 annually that would be used to oppose police budgets before the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services. Such a fund has been referred to as a “war chest.”
“We find it very concerning that it’s called a war chest,” Niagara Regional Police Association president Cliff Priest said. “Is this gentleman at war with the police? Are we the enemy? Are we terrorists? We don’t see contract bargaining … as being a war. I keep hearing from my members, ‘Why are we at war? These are all members of the community. They work hard, and they want to understand why Mr. Timms, and his colleagues, hate them so much.”
The issue of creating an Ontario Civilian Police Commission Appeal Reserve fund was moved forward at the Region’s corporate services committee meeting Wednesday. After much discussion, committee members voted to direct staff to write a report on the establishment of a fund and that the report be referred for consideration at the budget review committee of the whole meeting.
Priest sees the move as nothing more than electioneering on the part of Timms and two vocal supporters on regional council — Selina Volpatti of Niagara Falls and Andy Petrowski of St. Catharines.
“It’s an election year — I can’t stress that enough,” Priest said. “It does seem very much about re-election. In our view, a lot of it is election rhetoric — let’s get my name out there so the people will vote for me.”
Timms has said the fund would be a warning to police the Region is serious about holding the line on the NRP budget, approximately 94% of which is earmarked to pay salaries and benefits.
Those who oppose creating a reserve fund, such as Coun. Henry D’Angela and regional Chairman Gary Burroughs, site the arbitration system used to settle contract disputes with police as the major issue.
“The rules aren’t working,” D’Angela said at Wednesday’s co-operates services committee meeting. “They need some adjustment, but unfortunately we’re not the ones who can make those adjustments. That’s the provincial government, so until they look at that, we’re stuck with what we have.”
Rather than create a fund to battle police budgets, D’Angela said the money would be better spent to lobby the provincial government for change.
Pat Vanini, executive director of the Association of Ontario Municipalities, is in agreement with D’Angela and other municipal leaders who have long felt the arbitration system favours police associations over municipalities. She said “balance” needs to be restored in the arbitration system.
“The arbitrators need to more actively and demonstrably show how their decision reflects a community’s ability to pay,” Vanini said. “They need to be sensitive to that community’s fiscal challenges.”
She said decisions on pay hikes for one municipality should not be based on settlements in another jurisdiction.
“What happens in Municipality A, isn’t necessarily the same circumstances Municipality B, C or D.”
She said a good indicator of a municipality’s ability to pay is reflected in it’s raises to non-emergency public servants and any raise to police should be equal to that of others in that municipality’s public service.
Vanini said the AMO continues to press the provincial government for change in the arbitration system.
Priest doesn’t buy the argument arbitrators do not take into account a municipality’s ability to pay raises. He said the last time the Niagara Regional Police Services Board and police association found themselves before an arbitrator — in 2013 when police were awarded a pay hike of 3.05% retroactive to 2012 — the board argument the municipality did not have the ability to pay was rejected.
“(The arbitrator) said, ‘No, you have no argument here about ability to pay, it’s willingness to pay,’ “ Priest said.
He said the police association does its best to avoid arbitration hearings, noting it costs the municipality and union “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” and it’s a “crap shoot.”
“When you go to arbitration, I liken it to a crap shoot. Neither side likes to go to arbitration. You never know what an arbitrator is going to do,” Priest said, noting in 2013 that while the arbitrator gave police a 3.05% raise, he also took away some benefits.
“I’ve never been to arbitration where the arbitrator gives one side or the other everything it asks for,” he said. “It doesn’t work like that.”
He said his members, who are also taxpayers, would rather see a negotiated settlement rather than taxpayer and association dollars spent on the arbitration process.
“The bottom line is, we are not at war with the Region. We are not at war with the police services board. We don’t view it that way. We are very disappointed that Mr. Timms and his two fellow compatriots view this as a war.”