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Letters to the Editor: November 2009

Dave is absolutely correct that I insisted the London Professional Fire Fighters Association be granted access to financial information prior to even considering any type of wage freeze or rollback.

November 6, 2009
By Firefighting in Canada

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To the editor,

I read with interest David Hodgins’ Leadership Forum in the June issue of Fire Fighting in Canada.

Dave is absolutely correct that I insisted the London Professional Fire Fighters Association be granted access to financial information prior to even considering any type of wage freeze or rollback. I believed that only to be fair, especially considering we have not had a signed collective agreement in place since 2003, whereas all other civic unions, including police, have agreements until the end of 2010. It’s rather difficult to agree to a wage freeze when you haven’t negotiated or been awarded an increase. We have received wage increases as a result of the Teplitsky award for 2004-2007, but are now entering into the arbitration process once again for 2008.

This motion was first put forward by Mr. Gosnell and Mr. Vanmeerbergen  and soundly defeated by council. It reared its head in a later debate and the motion was to instruct the mayor to meet with all unions to discuss this issue.

Upon meeting with us, the mayor made it clear she was not going to approach the matter in this fashion and instead asked us to work co-operatively to find savings. Essentially, the mayor did not follow council direction and was taken to task by some members of council and the public. I give her great credit for that position.

Even when Dave Hodgins was here as chief, the association offered to participate in department budget deliberations so, perhaps, together we could find some cost savings. This never happened and it was again suggested to the CAO Fielding, at this meeting. He agreed that those discussions should happen.

We also suggested the corporation should be willing to negotiate collective agreements instead of forcing us into interest arbitration costing the corporation some $320,000 for 2004 through 2007. It’s also tough to swallow a wage freeze proposal when it is reported that the corporation is in possession of an eight million dollar surplus for 2008.

I do consider myself a leader, as a fire captain, qualified district chief and as an association president. If given the opportunity, we are more than willing and able to discuss and implement ideas that may lead to cost savings for the taxpayer. Being forced into a situation by a mandate from council is counter productive and detrimental to relationship building, something I know you value with high regard. This entire issue was used by a few members of council as political fodder. They knew full well what the answer would be.

Being in the public as much as we are, we know the hardships that many in our communities are facing. Neither the police administrator nor myself ever proclaimed our particular membership was “special”. It is the politicians more often than not who say that if we don’t agree to pay cuts then there will be layoffs. As you know, council sets the level of service. To agree with wage freezes or rollbacks is the beginning of the slippery slope. 

Again, we would welcome the opportunity to offer innovative ideas in these troubled times, we just need to be asked to participate.
 
Respectfully,

Jim Holmes,
president, London Professional Fire Fighters Association



To the editor,
Re Volunteer Vision by Fire Chief Brad Patton, Volunteers deserve equal legislation, August 2009.

As you can appreciate I have followed the commentary related to this subject within various publications and inside Queen’s Park. The underlying theme for many involved in this debate (including Chief Patton) is that somehow the volunteer and part-time firefighters were excluded from presumptive legislation.  In fact Chief Patton goes so far as to say that the volunteers were included in the original bill then removed.

All of the statements are untrue and very misleading. Where Chief Patton contradicted himself was when he identified that Bill 221 passed all three readings on the same day within minutes. Therefore how could the legislation have been amended to exclude or remove volunteers when there was no debate? The simple answer it wasn’t. Typically a piece of legislation is introduced in the House, which is referred to as first reading. Then the bill is brought back for debate among the MPPs and this is referred to as second reading. Typically at this stage the bill is referred to a committee where amendments are debated.  Then the bill is brought back to the house for final debate and third reading. This did not happen in this case as it gained immediate all party support.

I have attached Bill 221 where it is clear that all it does is authorize regulation making powers to identify various occupational diseases, who they apply to (which includes volunteer firefighters) and how they apply. The reality is that no one was “excluded”, as the legislation applies equally to all firefighters across Ontario but it is the regulations that make the difference. The difficulty facing the volunteer firefighters is that not all provinces that have already passed similar legislation have been consistent in their treatment of volunteer firefighters whereas that was not the case for full-time career fire fighters.

As well, I would like to clarify for the record that the OPFFA has never taken a position opposed to volunteer firefighters receiving presumptive coverage for cancers and heart injury despite the assertions of some fire chiefs and municipal councils. I find it offensive that these individuals resorted to these types of accusations or, as Chief Patton asserts, that a provincial election and a powerful, well-run association (I will take a leap that he is referring to the OPFFA) is responsible for this mess.

What everyone has to realize is that there will be municipal opposition because of the financial impact, and the WSIB – which is ultimately responsible for adjudicating the claims that will flow from any regulation made under this legislation – will have great influence on the parameters of what the regulation will look like (i.e. years of service, determination of exposures). I am confident that the Ministry of Labour, which is working on this file, is faced with considerable (albeit not public) opposition and is trying to wade through this much in the same manner as it did for the regulation that applies to full-time career firefighters.

What everyone should realize is that we faced all of this same opposition and we worked on the content of the regulation for over two years. It just so happened that we did that work in conjunction with our lobbying effort to secure the legislation and thus had the benefit of seeing the regulation within months of the legislation being passed.

I hope this clarifies that no one was forgotten, removed or purposely excluded from this landmark legislation and I hope that my organization can finally rid itself of the unwarranted baggage that we are somehow opposing a move to provide coverage for other firefighters in Ontario.

I only hope that others will now take the time to understand the legislative process before they make and publish false allegations.

Sincerely,

Fred LeBlanc, President, OPFFA




Editor’s note

Columnist Brad Patton responds to Mr. LeBlanc’s letter:

In response to Mr. LeBlanc comments, it continues to amaze me that that when people write a letter, a memo or a column there are always some who misinterpret the meaning.
 
Let me try to explain my column and respond to Mr. Leblanc’s letter, in which he claims that my statements “are untrue and very misleading . . .”

First, Bill 221 in fact includes volunteer firefighters but the regulation excluded volunteers and in my opinion this was deliberate. The same day the bill was passed, Minister of Labour Steve Peters stated in a press release, “The Government will now move forward with regulation for full-time firefighters….”

Secondly, Bill 221 received first, second and third readings on May 3 (www.oafc.on.ca/lib/db2file.asp?fileid=1055) and Royal Assent on May 4, as stated in my column.

And, lastly, many times I have had different opinions than  Mr. LeBlanc and OPFFA but in my column on  presumptive legislation I praised the OPFFA for its work to get this coverage for its members, and I meant that very sincerely. The OPFFA has done a lot of work to get this coverage for their membership and I applaud the association.

I believe that all firefighters should be treated equally, work wherever they like and receive the same benefits.

Brad Patton



To the editor,
Re Flashpoint, September 2009, Getting retirement ducks in a row by Peter Sells.

As the president of Mr. Sells’ former local, the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters Association, I feel compelled to respond to his article. While I whole heartedly support his position that people be educated and aware of the nuances of their pensions, I think he has missed educating people of some of the subtler benefits of the NRA 60 plan.

The 30 per cent surcharge is essentially accurate when comparing the contribution rates of NRA 60 (7.9 per cent) versus NRA 65 (10 per cent). There would be no disagreement with Mr. Sells example of the twins if the accrual of two per cent in pension per year was the only benefit of the NRA 60. But, there are a significant number of benefits of the NRA 60 plan that Mr. Sells has neglected to acknowledge and which people should be aware of.

The basic benefit is the ability to retire early. While retiring early may result in a reduced pension for the NRA 60 member, the reduction will be far less than it is for the NRA 65 member. No one can completely predict their future personal circumstances. Flexibility in a pension plan has value. The NRA 60 plan gives far greater flexibility.

Mr. Sells also states that for a late career starter, the only advantage is reaching unreduced early retirement age 2.5 years earlier. This benefit in itself is substantial but the reduction factor is also less for a NRA 60 member than the NRA 65 member, should the member want to retire earlier.

For example let’s consider Mr. Sells’ example of the 30-year-old twins.

  1. The NRA 60 twin can retire unreduced at age 57.5 while the NRA 65 twin can only do so at age 60.
  2. If they both want to retire at age 57, the NRA 60 twin (who will have 84 points) will have his/her pension reduced by five per cent while the NRA 65 twin will have a 15 per cent reduction (from age 60).

Recently, my local contacted OMERS to get the average retirement
age of both NRA 60 and 65. We were not surprised to see a five-year difference between the two. NRA 60’s average age at commencement (normal plus early) is 55.32. NRA 65’s average age at commencement (normal plus early) is 60.51. This may prove to be significant considering the provincial government’s current review of the bone fide retirement age for firefighters. What will the pension landscape look like if changes are made after this review?

The recent changes allowing for supplemental plans within OMERS will likely lead to members retiring earlier. In reviewing the statistics of some 600 retirees in Toronto we found that 41 per cent utilized the NRA 60 provision to retire early with no reduction. That number is even higher if you add those that retire utilizing the reduced provision factors within NRA 60.

The less obvious benefit is the ripple effect created by members retiring earlier. Early retirement provides greater opportunity for those still on the job for earlier promotion. This allows for greater numbers of members to improve their salaries in their final years, resulting in improved pensions.

Peter is correct in stating, “The pension plans look at each group separately and take contributions based on expected payout of benefits.“This is done by looking at past experience, expected salary increases, life expectancy, inflation and various other considerations. Thus, NRA 60 members are paying for what the plan offers and the benefits that are actually being realized. The rate is based on actuarial assessment and not a pre-determined amount set by OMERS. If one actually looked at the last NRA 60 evaluation done by OMERS the NRA 60 increase was less then what was required due to a surplus in the plan that was used to offset it. NRA 60 is a valued pension benefit that police and firefighters share. One just has to look to at our counterparts in EMS who understand that it is a benefit worth fighting for, to understand that we are privileged to have this option and should not take it for granted.

Scott Marks




Editor’s note

Peter Sells responds to Scott Marks:

Thanks to president Marks for his letter. It was not the intent of my column to be a comprehensive review of the benefits of OMERS pensions. That would be a difficult task to accomplish in one page. Rather, my goal was to give my perspective on the merits of NRA 60 vs NRA 65. It seems that we agree on the relative cost of each plan; where we differ is on the value for that cost. Yes, NRA-60 members can retire 2.5 years earlier without penalty. And the figures Mr. Marks quoted showed that a significant number of firefighters are retiring early.  My point was that regardless of their ability to retire a couple of years earlier, the cost that members pay for the right to do so is significant.

There are other retirement options within the system that neither Mr. Marks nor I discussed because, to reiterate, this is too complex a subject to address completely in this forum. We both stated our advice that members should be fully informed of their options.

I will close with my thanks to Local 3888 for the efforts it consistently makes in providing that information to its membership.

Peter Sells

Fire Fighting in Canada welcomes letters to the editor. Letters may be e-mailed to lking@annexweb.com. Letters may be edited for style and content. All letter writers will be contacted by the editor.


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