Brandon city councillors may try to target protective services as a source of cuts as budget deliberations begin this morning.
During an informal meeting in which department heads had a chance to defend budget requests yesterday, many councillors voiced concern regarding the ever-climbing costs of wages for police, fire and 911 dispatch workers.
Firefighter and paramedic wages are set to rise from a total of $7.3 million last year to nearly $7.9 million this year, with 2015 costs predicted to be $8.2 million — costs set by union arbitration.
Coun. Jeff Fawcett (Assiniboine) said Brandon Fire and Emergency Services Chief Brent Dane and the city have to take a hard look at those costs.
"We have citizens saying get it under control," Fawcett said. "By not being able to address any of this, you have to cut everything else."
He said he doesn’t expect council to make any "draconian" moves to address the issue today as council mulls over the $75.3-million budget line by line, but says he does hope to push the city and the union to come together to "stabilize this."
Coun. Garth Rice (South Centre) suggested a national strategy be implemented to address the wage issue.
Ultimately, the city can only control the amount of money the services get, and Dane pointed out to council yesterday that a budget cut or freeze could lead to layoffs.
Coun. Stephen Montague (Richmond) — who has been vocal about taking a sharp knife to staffing — said council could hit a breaking point regarding wages during today’s meeting.
"We get to the point where residents are tapped out, we’re looking at shifting resources to protective services to pay for these wages," he said.
In 2012, the union representing E-911 dispatchers demanded a 34 per cent increase over two years, plus a similar increase in benefits. However, the results of the arbitration in November have yet to be revealed.
Along with firefighters, police salaries have also soared and have been scrutinized this year when the Sun reported that they had risen by more than 45 per cent since 2005. A first-class constable now makes more than $84,000 a year, plus significant overtime and other extra pay.
It was mentioned during yesterday’s meeting that police overtime has been reduced from last year, and Chief Ian Grant pointed to the service’s retirement incentive program to lower wage costs.
Total salary costs for police, dispatch and E-911 services are budgeted at $15.1 million this year, up from $14.5 million in 2013. The budget foresees costs of $15.7 million in 2015.
This is the first year the Brandon Police Board, which was created in 2013, has been part of the budget process with city council, and the two bodies still have to sort out their respective responsibilities.
The board only deals with the police service’s operating budget and the city still oversees its capital budget.
During the protective services portion of the meeting, which spilled late into the evening, city manager Scott Hildebrand outlined the findings of a short investigation into replacing the Brandon Police Service with the RCMP.
Included in his laundry list of reasons to keep the BPS, Hildebrand said wages of comparable constables of the BPS and RCMP are "close" and an RCMP constable gets to the top wage rate after 36 months compared to 60 months with the Brandon force.
He also pointed out municipalities that have never been policed by the RCMP must pay 100 per cent of contracting policing services.
After some housekeeping last night, council is now looking at a proposed 2.13 per cent tax hike, and Hildebrand said a zero per cent tax increase is not "prudent."
Council heard from close to 15 departments throughout the evening as it armed itself with the information needed to get through today’s deliberations.
While all councillors asked many questions, Coun. Shawn Berry (Linden Lanes) in particular took the time to scrutinize the many smaller budget lines, including those for consultation, legal and conference costs.
Councillors and administration also discussed the Sportsplex, the Wheat City Golf Course, city infrastructure and the airport.
The meeting lasted well into the evening and didn’t wrap up before press time.
The formal budget deliberation, which begins today at 8 a.m. at Brandon City Hall, is open to the public.
For more budget updates over the weekend, visit brandonsun.com.
The full story will be in Monday’s Brandon Sun.