New police, fire contracts could be among toughest city has ever negotiated

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If you’re a city police officer, firefighter or paramedic, this year’s proposed civic budget was a classic blend of good news and bad news.

The good news is that despite tough economic times, the city is poised to, once again, demonstrate a level of generosity for police and firefighters/paramedics that exceeds all other areas of civic service.

In the preliminary budget tabled last week, the Winnipeg Police Service is slated to receive a $16.7 million increase (6.3 per cent) hike to its budget. Firefighters and paramedics are poised to receive a $11.8 million (6.63 per cent) increase. For a city council that is engaging in all sorts of accounting gymnastics to keep the property tax increase (2.33 per cent) in the vicinity of inflation, those are gaudy numbers.

The police and fire/paramedic budget lines have become to civic budgets what health care has become to provincial budgets: all-consuming behemoths that suck up taxpayer support from almost all other areas of spending. To wit, this year the combined police and fire/paramedic budgets consume almost half (44.6 per cent) of the city’s $1-billion tax-supported budget.

That has pushed the city into a position where the next contracts negotiated for police and the fire/paramedic service could be among the toughest ever negotiated.

“I’ve been a very vocal critic of these costs,” said Coun. Marty Morantz, chairman of the city’s finance committee. “I think these increases are just not sustainable.”

With roughly 85 per cent of the costs of these departments tied up in salaries, that is going to put a lot of pressure on the city to drive a harder bargain on the next collective agreements. Both the police and most areas of the fire/paramedic service will require a renewed contract in 2017.

“There is no doubt that the only place we can really deal with this is in collective bargaining,” Morantz said.

How exactly has the city become so hamstrung by police and fire/paramedic costs?

The unions representing the various disciplines within the police and fire/paramedic services have been very successful in justifying and receiving large wage increases that have easily outstripped those provided to other civic employees. Much of the wage increase for police was achieved in the previous decade when politicians at all stripes could not open their mouths without announcing an increase in the police and firefighting presence in most municipalities.

It’s also important to note that Winnipeg is not alone in carrying this burden.

A study released earlier this year by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario found police officers and firefighters there received nearly half a billion dollars more in wage hikes than other municipal bargaining groups between 2010 and 2014. The Ontario association estimated these wage increases, many awarded through arbitration, were roughly three times the rate of inflation during the study period.

However, beyond the influence of wage demands, Winnipeg has several other complicating forces at work driving these budgets.

In the case of police, the city is now carrying enormous debt, financing and moving costs related to the opening of the new downtown police headquarters on Graham Avenue. Massively over budget, and currently the subject of a police investigation into invoicing by the general contractor, the police service budget has had to absorb more than $9 million in additional costs this year related to the transition into the new headquarters.

In the fire and paramedic service, costs have also gone up precipitously but in these cases, much of it is related to enhanced services. The city is adding 24 new paramedic positions to staff the Emergency Paramedics in the Community (EPIC) program, which stations paramedics into high-demand areas of downtown Winnipeg to provide onsite medical attention that often negates the need to transfer patients to hospital. The program has been successful at treating and thus diverting thousands of patients a year from overcrowded hospital ERs.

Still, if the city is to get its police and firefighting/paramedic costs under control, it will require a deft hand at the contract negotiating table. Both the police and firefighters have contracts that expire in 2017. Even now, there have been signs from city council that the next contracts negotiated for these essential and emergency services will be different from past agreements.

The Winnipeg Police Board has been charged with the task of working with the WPS to find ways of bringing its budget under control and, at the very least, slowing the rise in annual expenditures.

However, it is unclear that council has the intestinal fortitude to hold the line in final approval of the 2016 operating budget. The WPS is actually still seeking $3.5 million more than the allocation in the preliminary budget. Currently, the police service does not have a plan to cut that money from its operations, meaning ultimately council will have the final say.

In the past, council has been unwilling to tussle with either the police or firefighters given their high profile and political muscle. However, as Morantz has noted, the city has very few options right now to bring down overall police and fire costs without dramatically lower wage increases or, possibly, a reduction in force through attrition. Or a combination of both.

Previous councils have evaded those decisions. This council, which mostly inherited the current situation, will have its moment in 2017. Whether or not it takes advantage of that moment is another matter altogether.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/columnists/new-police-fire-contracts-could-be-among-toughest-city-has-ever-negotiated-371220601.html