Posted August 9, 2013
In a recent column in the Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente said the cost of municipal fire departments is rapidly outstripping the ability for municipal taxpayers to pay.
The column cited how firefighters’ contract negotiations usually spin off to an arbitrator. This is what recently occurred in Guelph. In most cases the arbitrators side with the unions, so salaries and benefits soar because of the arbitrator comparing remuneration with other settlements. It’s called whip-sawing as one fire department scores increases and benefits, it then becomes a benchmark for other departments. The effect to taxpayers is an exponential growth of fire protection costs that have pushed most firemen into the $100,000 salary plus benefits category.
Again, this is a standard pattern that is prevalent in the way the Guelph administration states employee costs. There is the base salary but the cost of benefits and perqs is hidden. What are these hidden costs?
Starting with “retention “ payments that are included in many union contracts, this is a hidden bonus paid by many municipalities, including Guelph, to discourage employees from quitting. Over the past few years the bonus retention system has not served the city well as many valuable employees have left for greener pastures.
Here is an example of loyalty by public employees. Last year there were 500 applicants for 20 firefighter positions in Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo. Why was that? Well, a first class firefighter in Cambridge earns up to $99,397 plus benefits and overtime. That’s some 40 per cent more than the average Cambridge taxpayer earns.
So if becoming a fire fighter is such an awful job that the city must pay a “retention” bonus to keep them on the job, what’s wrong with this picture?
But it gets better. Fire fighters work 24-hour shifts. They usually complete, on average, seven 24-hour shifts in a 28-day period. That leaves 21 days for the fire fighter to do whatever he or she wants to. Reporting for work, the fire fighter responds to emergency calls, sleeps, cooks, watches television, polishes the truck and services equipment. One consultant to the industry called the 24-hour arrangement “a well-paid part-time job”.
Added to the mix are the sick leave days that can be accumulated through to retirement and paid as a cash settlement. The grid system of automatic increases based on time in service, also contributes to increased pension benefits and taxpayer liability.
What has occurred in the past 25 years is that fire safety and prevention standards have dramatically reduced the number of fires that require the municipal fire departments to handle.
The counter argument is the fire fighters are insurance for the “big one” or major disaster.
At the same time, costs of maintaining the fire departments has escalated chiefly due to the soaring employee costs.
When a municipality attempts to reduce its fire fighting costs, the union frequently grieves the decision and forces the city to halt its cost cutting of operations.
A example of this is in Windsor in 2008 when a fire truck was pulled out of service. The union grieved the decision and successfully argued that the administration promised to keep the truck in operation until the new contract was settled. That contract has yet to be settled. An arbitrator sided with the union and ordered the city to pay $381,000 to compensate for lost overtime or an average of $1,328 for each firefighter.
The real story is that the municipal fire departments are very good at growing their pay and benefits. On the other hand, municipal politicians dodge the problem by frequently foisting the contract talks over to an arbitrator thereby knuckling under to union demands.
It’s even more prevalent in Guelph where staff costs running the municipality have increased by more than 70 per cent since January 2007 under the leadership of Mayor Karen Farbridge.