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Police, firefighters feel salary heat

By Bill Sawchuk, St. Catharines Standard
Friday, March 11, 2016 3:13:49 EST PM

Arbitration. It’s not a word officials want to hear as they tackle balancing a municipal budget and negotiating contracts with police officers and firefighters.

Gary McNamara, president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), said the provincially-controlled arbitration system “tilts” toward unions.

He told a recent Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference that police officers and firefighters in Ontario received $485 million worth of pay hikes over and above raises given to other municipal employees between 2010 and 2014.

“It’s about half a billion dollars,” he said. “Based on our experience with the Federal Gas Tax Fund, half a billion dollars will build and maintain about 1,750 kilometres of road. That will get you from here to Halifax.”

In Niagara, the threat of arbitration appears to have changed the dynamics of negotiations.

In 2013, an arbitrator awarded Niagara Regional Police a pay increase of 3.05 per cent retroactive to January 2012.

Chastened, the Region then reached a deal with Niagara Region Police Association that saw wages go up 2.6 per cent in 2013, 2.5 per cent in 2014 and 2.5 per cent in 2015 — though both sides made an effort to offset increases with savings in other areas. The union also took pay increase splits over the three years to reduce the amount of pay they received each year.

It was the first time in 10 years the police association and the Region reached a settlement without arbitration.

“The unions are well aware of how the system works,” St. Catharines regional Coun. Bruce Timms said. “They take advantage of the rules. The most glaring example is when the Niagara Region Police Association makes their position to the arbitrator that the average income of the community is irrelevant to the negotiation of their salaries.

“A first-class constable in Niagara is making $92,000 a year, within $500 of what a City of Toronto police officer makes. The arbitrator seemed to be only concerned that a Niagara police officer makes the same as a Toronto police officer.

“It goes as far as the Niagara Falls fire association demanding and getting parity with the Niagara Regional Police, who in turn have parity with Toronto.

“From the union’s point of view, we always have the ability to pay. We can raise taxes.”

“What we want is the province to even the playing field so that those of us who are negotiating on behalf of the taxpayer have a decent chance of winning the argument.”

The police association’s contract with the Region expired at the end of 2015. Negotiations have yet to start. The union is waiting for the resolution of some grievances. The results of the grievances will affect whether the union wants changes in the wording of the next contract.

Cliff Priest, president of the Niagara Region Police Association, the union that represents Niagara’s rank and file officers, said he doesn’t want to end up in arbitration again.

“We aren’t afraid of arbitration, but we don’t want it,” he said. “It doesn’t meet the needs of my members or the needs of the community. We have a bad track record in this region for ending up in arbitration, and most of it is politically driven.

“Going to arbitration is a huge waste of taxpayers money. I’m a taxpayer here, and so are most of my members, but we can’t negotiate if both sides aren’t willing to negotiate.”

Priest said there is misinformation in the public regarding the process. Arbitrators take into consideration a municipality’s ability to pay, he said. It is part of the legislation.

“In 2012, we spent several days discussing the ability to pay in front of the arbitrator,” Priest said. “(The Region) spent $480,000 of taxpayers money on arbitration, but, at the end of the day, the arbitrator completely rejected their proposals and clearly stated, in his judgment, that it wasn’t about the ability to pay, it was about willingness to pay.

“If you look at the province, other areas have negotiated four- or five-year deals, and that includes economically depressed areas like Windsor and Sudbury. There was a willingness on both sides to sit down and negotiate.”

Thorold is in the midst of working on a contract with its full-time firefighters. Mayor Ted Luciani didn’t want to comment on where negotiations were headed.

He did say he agreed with Timms that the current arbitration system is broken.

“How could 100 municipalities go to arbitration and no municipalities win?” he said. “We can’t seem to get control of the wages because of the arbitrators.

“St. Catharines is in arbitration now with their firefighters, and they are probably going to lose. The Toronto cops recently got 2.7 per cent. That is probably the number the arbitrator will settle on for St. Catharines.”

An arbitration ruling Feb. 6, 2015, awarded Thorold firefighters a 9.2 per cent pay hike over three years retroactive to January 2013. As of May 1, 2015, Thorold first-class firefighters saw their pay hiked from the $85,399 they were earning in January 2013 to $92,119.

Getting provincewide hard data on exactly who wins and loses in police and fire arbitration is tricky. Success or failure is the eye of the beholder. Often, both sides feel they have lost.

Nonetheless, the numbers in Niagara tell part of the story.

There were 602 members of the Niagara Regional Police on the 2015 Ontario Public Sector Salary Disclosure list, also known as the Sunshine List. The list comprises public employees making more than $100,000.

St. Catharines had 112 city employees appear on its Sunshine List. Of those, 74 were members of St. Catharines Fire and Emergency Services. There were 117 City of Niagara Falls employees on the list, with about 100 from its fire department. Of 40 City of Welland employees on the list, 23 work for the fire department.

“I hope the province doesn’t wait, and we get to the point where we are closing an arena or laying off other staff,” St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik said. “If we get to that point, I don’t know how we will be able to build communities.

“I think there are communities out there where they are saying we know we can’t address the fire budget, so we are going to have to reduce services.”

St. Catharines and its firefighters are in the midst of the arbitration process after failing to work out a deal. The hearings have been held, and both sides are awaiting the outcome.

“We can’t strike, so binding arbitration is the best way to maintain public service and get a deal if the negotiations aren’t successful,” said Ryan Madill, president of the St. Catharines Professional Firefighters Association. “Here in St. Catharines, the firefighters have a good record of negotiating deals. Before having to file in 2013, we negotiated three agreements without going to arbitration.

“Arbitration ties things up for two or three years for us. We certainly don’t do it on a whim. We do our best to sit down and bargain fairly.”

Welland Mayor Frank Campion said he is a firm believer that it is better to negotiate.

“I know I am a first-term mayor, but the last place anyone wants to go is arbitration,” he said. “My objective would be to avoid that at all costs. The money spent on the arbitration process can be better spent on services. It’s expensive for both sides.”

Campion also said he isn’t surprised AMO is taking aim at the system.

“It seems that the province needs to define the ability to pay and what that really means,” he said. “It would be a major step forward.”

McNamara, the AMO president, told the conference held Feb. 22 he believes employees who can’t strike should receive wage and benefits increases in line with municipal employees who can strike.

He said that’s what arbitration is supposed to do, but it isn’t happening.

Ontario’s system is “creating unjust imbalances, and indefensible costs,” he said.

Timms agrees. He is also optimistic Queen’s Park will finally work up the courage to change the system, though he admits there will be pushback from powerful, well-funded police and fire unions.

“The entire province is concerned that first responders are getting two and three per cent steadily while all the other public service employees are down to 1.5 per cent,” Timms said. “Everyone in the province is working hard to negotiate net-zero contracts. We can’t possibly do that with the arbitration system the way it is.

“Even the associations have to recognize it is time to take a break and live with what they have for a couple of years and let us put our resources where we need them — infrastructure, regional housing, those that don’t have jobs at all.

“We are all up to our neck in deficits and debts. Somewhere something has to give.”
Last Modified: March 21, 2016 10:45 PM
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