Public fire protection costs are out of control

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.

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8 Comments

Filed under Between the Lines

8 responses to “Public fire protection costs are out of control

  1. paul

    So what else is new. Everything has increased since Farbridge became the municipal dictator.

  2. Glen N. Tolhurst

    The crux of the problem is that politicians at the provincial and local level lack the brains and intestinal fortitude to solve the the perceived problem.
    The real problem is the willingness of politicians to say they can’t do anything which is manifested as the symptom of rising taxes.The provincial government needs to change the law and state that arbitrators must take into account the ability to pay. This will stop the unions from shopping for an arbitrator that will blindly grant outrageous increases. In these economic times, there is no need for “retention” payments, especially when 500 people apply for 20 firefighter positions. Another symptom of the problem of escalating costs is having $500,000 fire engines respond to medical emergencies only to be followed by an EMT staffed ambulance and several police cruisers. A recent report on a national TV network illustrated how Winnipeg addressed the symptom by having an EMT, with requisite defibrillator and oxygen equipment, on board a fire engine responding to a medical call. Additionally, co-location of ambulances at fire stations with a common dispatching system would negate fire trucks being sent for medical calls. While the problem of escalating costs is being raised, eliminate the symptom of separate silo building empires for police, fire, and ambulance services and have a unified command and dispatch system.
    Now that would be a true step forward, but don’t expect Guelph council to risk alienating their supportive unions.

    • Glen N. Tolhurst: A Nova Scotia professor wrote a letter in the G and M saying that fire fighters face hazards that no other public servant must face. She further stated that firefighters suffer illness and stress that force many to retire at 55. That statement masks the real reason they retire in their ’50’s. Their pension allows early retirement requiring no reason. If they are members of OMERS, the pension plan gives them $7,000 annually in “bridge money on top of their pension payout, until they are eligible for the Canada Pension benefit. If a fire fighter is earning $100,000 a year today, can you picture what he or she will be earning ten years from now if the salaries keep escalating as they have in recent years? The pensioner’s average life span is 82 years so he or she will be drawing from OMERS an indexed pension for some 27 years. And the taxpayer has to guarantee the pensioner will receive his pension regardless of whether they have the money or not. OMERS is the pension plan for 268,000 Ontario public servants and is currently underfunded by $9 billion.

  3. A different Paul

    The 24 hour shift is nothing more than a boondoggle. But there are other factors to consider as well. One is the “closed shop” atmosphere that exists. I know a firefighter who commutes to another area. I asked him why he did not apply to the Guelph Fire Department. His answer blew me away. He said that because of terms dictated by the Union, he would have to give up all his progressions and start at a junior salary. It was just not worth it for him. Commuting was better especially when one considered the 24 hour shift – one return commute rather than three for an 8 hour shift. We have lost control especially our Provincial and Municipal elected members. But when the “leaders” kiss the uni9on butt, what else can the voter expect. Time to throw this Mayor and her supporters out of office

  4. Jim

    Anyone can apply to become a firefighter. You can’t blame them for their high salary and 24 hr shifts because it common place around the province. I can tell you from my own personal experience that I am willing to pay for their salary when in need of their services.

    • Jim: It’s easy to play the necessity card when it comes to fire fighters or police. Let’s compare what citizens pay for insuring their automobiles. They have the right to seek the best coverage for the least amount of money. That option does not exist for taxpayers when essential public servants negotiate contract terms. What is occurring with successive firefighter and police contracts is placing a long term burden on the taxpayers who must guarantee their pensions for their lifetime. With the average OMERS member retiring at 58, this creates a 25 to 30 year guarantee on each retiree. As the municipal taxpayer is the underlying source of guaranteeing the benefits of the retired workers, the liability soars exponentially with every new contract. There is a top to all this and I believe it has been reached. You cannot expect a taxpayer earning $50,000 a year to support the guaranteed, indexed pension of a public servant earning twice that much.

  5. Tom

    This is not only a problem in Guelph, but North America in General, and certainly all of Canada. We should stop looking at fireman as heroes. Granted they can be heroes at times, but how heroic is washing your car, working out in the gym, or shopping for groceries? All of these things are common practice for firefighters. And then of course the second job that most of them have. More of us who actually work for a living should be upset about it. France has 80% volunteer firemen, how much money does this free up for better health care etc. We are not even opening that conversation yet in Canada. We should stop adoring firemen for their calendar, and start seeing them for what they really are; well trained but over-payed, municipal employees.

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