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Toronto Fire Services may face budget axe


June 1, 2011
By Peter Sells

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June 1, 2011, Toronto – The word is out that Toronto Fire Services is facing the prospect of unprecedented staffing reductions in order to achieve budget targets as the city faces a $774-million shortfall for 2012.

June 1, 2011, Toronto – The word is out that Toronto Fire Services (TFS) is facing the prospect of unprecedented staffing reductions in order to achieve budget targets as the city faces a $774-million shortfall for 2012.

“All city divisions, agencies, boards and commissions have been requested to identify a 10 per cent reduction for the 2012 operating budget submission. TFS is facing a potential $37-million reduction at this time,” TFS Chief Bill Stewart confirmed Wednesday morning.

“TFS has prepared the impact statements associated with the request with respect to response time increases, firefighter and public safety and increased potential for fire loss.”

Stewart notes that not included in the $37 million is the impact of wage increases that have not been negotiated or awarded for 2010 to present date.

The days are long gone when a fire chief could storm into council and bluster, “If you don’t give me the money to run this department properly, babies are going to die in their cribs!” Councillors these days are too sophisticated and too well informed about fire-service operations to succumb to the dead-baby speech. Nowadays, they would be more likely to sharpen a pencil, scrutinize a spreadsheet and ask “Chief, exactly how many babies are we talking about here?”

I remember my first few years on the job, when I got two raises a year. One would occur when I reached an increment and moved from probationary to fourth class, third class, etc. These were each equivalent to 10 per cent of first-class firefighter pay, which was a little less than 40 grand at that time. The second raise would come when the negotiated increases in the multi-year collective agreement kicked in. These were no slouch either, as much as 5.5 per cent or six per cent in the 1980s. Considering that my time in between university and the fire service had been spent variously as a security officer, encyclopedia sales rep and McDonalds manager trainee, that kind of money was almost beyond belief.

Well, it was real but it was not sustainable. The boom of the ’80s gave way to more austere times. Several budget cycles in the ’90s brought down directives to cut operating budgets by 10 per cent or even 15 per cent, especially during the reorganization of the City of Toronto in 1994-95 and the subsequent municipal amalgamation in 1998 – not to mention Rae Days (any of my Ontario colleagues remember those?).

It seems that we have gone through another cycle of boom and bust in the last decade. In 2004, the Toronto Police Services Board awarded a contract that contained the then-controversial retention-pay provisions with progressive bonuses of three per cent, six per cent and nine per cent at eight, 17 and 23 years respectively. At the time, the board naively assumed that it had not set any precedent, but the same provisions cascaded across police and fire contracts in subsequent years. Add in consistent contract raises of close to three per cent annually over the last decade, and now we are faced with new calls for restraint and even reduction. It has been reported over the last week that Toronto police may be asked to reduce its uniformed and civilian staff by 10 per cent, specifically 500 uniforms and 300 suits. So now it seems that Toronto fire is under similar pressure for a double-digit budget decrease. Reality bites, but it is still reality. You can’t cut an operating budget that is in excess of 90 per cent salary and benefits by 10 per cent or more without reducing staff.

Of course, budget reduction and efficient city governance is exactly what Toronto Mayor Rob Ford campaigned on, and that’s what won him the election last fall. This leads to a puzzling juxtaposition of tactics; less than a month ago, Toronto police were awarded salary increases totalling 11.5 per cent over the next four years, making them the highest paid cops in Canada. The Ford giveth and the Ford taketh away? What’s with the sideshow shell game? If fair is fair, then can Toronto firefighters expect a similar contract if they are also asked to decimate their ranks?

Cuts on this order to Canada’s largest municipal fire service are equivalent to the removal of approximately 20 apparatuses from the fleet and 400 firefighters (TFS has about 128 apparatuses and more than 3,000 firefighters). In absolute terms, this seems staggering, given that the majority of Canadian fire departments don’t come close to 20 apparatuses or 400 firefighters. In relative terms, 10 to 12 per cent is 10 to 12 per cent. Can this actually be done to a fire department – of any size – without adversely affecting public safety? Will the bean counters be satisfied with attrition of perhaps three per cent a year for a few years, or will the mandate be for immediate reductions (read that as layoffs, maybe of the last three years of rookie classes).

Those are some tough choices for a fire chief to make, and I envy nobody faced with such tasks. With a majority conservative federal government in power for the next few years, will reduced provincial transfer payments result in reduced funds for municipalities and further provincial downloading of services? All of this costs money and there is only one pile per region, city or town. It might not be a bad idea for all fire chiefs across Canada to start looking now at contingency plans for when the axe man cometh.

I will close with a personal reflection for Mayor Ford and his team: I have known Chief Bill Stewart for 15 years, and he is just about the last guy I would want to stare down across a poker table.


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