From the Editor: January 2013
By Laura King
It’s a well-worn cliché, but it suits: Everyone, it seems, in this challenging fiscal environment, wants to have the proverbial cake and eat it too; some even want the corner piece with all the icing.
It’s a well-worn cliché, but it suits: Everyone, it seems, in this challenging fiscal environment, wants to have the proverbial cake and eat it too; some even want the corner piece with all the icing. The results of that sense of entitlement? Overindulgence, bloating, and, ultimately – in order to survive – an assessment of priorities for a leaner, more efficient system.
Municipal councils want fire departments – which chew up a significant portion of taxpayers’ money – to cut spending but maintain service levels and meet response-time standards. The motivation: re-election, by keeping tax increases minimal. Try explaining to politicians that slashing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fire budget means longer response times, or fewer trucks and fire halls. In Toronto as I wrote this, a city councillor had rallied her neighbourhood to fight against the recommended closure of a fire hall. The fire chief, who had been directed by the mayor, council and the acting budget chief to reduce spending, had chosen a hall that had been identified years ago for shuttering. Still, the councillor – to appease residents and score political points, and after claims by the firefighters association that the move could put residents at risk – opposed the chief’s recommendation and enjoyed considerable media coverage. Just so we’re clear: the councillor, who is part of the council that ordered the fire chief to trim the budget, loudly protested the chief’s well-researched decision. Win-win for the councillor. No-win for the chief, despite Mayor Rob Ford’s endorsement of his recommendation.
Firefighter associations want parity with their police counterparts – rightly so – and arbitrators are serving up big slices of tit-for-tat. But municipalities can’t afford the sweet salaries. In Kitchener, Ont., as in many Canadian communities, fire swallows 29 per cent of the city’s budget, and 96 per cent of that is eaten up by wages and benefits. Cutting personnel means reducing service levels. Fire chiefs have built their departments to function efficiently, effectively and safely, striving to meet local needs and circumstances and NFPA standards. Unwilling to risk safety, chiefs are taking a stand – and, in some cases, being publicly admonished by mayors and CEOs for doing so – by trying to put the onus on their councils to set response levels and then explain those decisions to unions and taxpayers
As one chief said to me recently, it appears that municipalities are looking for new methods of service delivery but they’re afraid of the wrath of the firefighter associations should they opt to convert to composite models or combine fire with EMS to more efficiently respond to medical calls, and they’re expecting the fire chiefs to take the heat, so to speak.
What’s more, there’s a palpable anxiety among fire-service leaders that they’ll be the scapegoats for municipalities that do opt for change.
In Corner Brook, N.L., the fire chief is still reeling after being forced by the city to lay off four firefighters following an arbitrator’s ruling that gave the association a 16 per cent (retroactive) wage increase.
In December, taxpayers in Saint John, N.B., overwhelmingly singled out the fire department as a target that should produce a new operating model or face budget cuts.
And in Brockville, Ont., a consultant has recommended that the full-time fire department be changed to composite to save money.
In a nutshell – or maybe an eggshell, to stick with the cake analogy – as Kitchener Fire Chief Tim Beckett told his council, it’s out of his control; the vicious circle of want-get-spend-cut starts with arbitrators’ rulings and ends up squarely at the feet of the fire chiefs, who, for the record, are being advised by their associations to negotiate exit packages into their contracts and are receiving negligible pay increases while their firefighters, in many cases, get double-digit raises.
Not exactly the icing on the cake, is it?