JILLIAN AUSTIN/BRANDON SUN
Officials take part in the second day of the firefighter arbitration hearing at the Victoria Inn, during which the city made its case for holding a pay increase to a total of six per cent over three years. The hearing is expected to wrap up today.
Proposed wage increases by the Brandon firefighters union would have a significant impact on local taxpayers, according to the city’s legal counsel.
"It’s not so simple to say the city can just raise its rates … to address wage increases," said Jamie Jurczak, a member of the city’s legal counsel. "The bulk of the cost is still going to remain with the Brandon taxpayer."
It was the city’s turn to present its case to the arbitration board on Wednesday — Day 2 of the hearing.
The union is asking for a four-year contract, with a 21 per cent wage increase — nine per cent, six per cent, three per cent and three per cent.
The city is offering a six per cent increase over three years — a two per cent increase for 2012, 2013 and 2014. The union has been without a contract since December 2011.
Jurczak responded to the Brandon Professional Firefighters/Paramedics Association, whose lawyer presented to the board on Tuesday. It was suggested that there are a number of ways the city could pay for the proposed increase, including raising fees for different services.
"The ability to raise rates immediately is not going to happen, those are locked in for a period of time," Jurczak said.
The daylong hearing began with a few heated moments between the two sides. The city’s lawyer, Grant Mitchell, presented some new documents that weren’t in the original briefing notes.
He was trying point out the fact that the union’s package of demands expanded significantly in 2011 — a total of 229 proposals.
"It’s that type of package of demands that is why we are here," Mitchell said.
Another new document included statistics from the past 15 years on Brandon firefighters. According to Mitchell, each member of the fire department has attended three active fires per year between 1998-2013.
But Garth Smorang, the union’s lawyer, objected.
"I have never seen this document. This is not how we do this," he said. "If there are more, this is going to get ugly really fast."
Eventually after several breaks, requested both by the legal teams and the arbitrators, the hearing continued.
The city’s legal team argued that attempting to approach equality between firefighter salaries and police salaries is not necessarily what needs to happen.
"While there are comparisons … there certainly are differences," Mitchell said. "Police are unique from everyone including firefighters … I’m not aware of a single current example where a firefighters make the same wage as police."
Another topic the union spoke about Tuesday was that firefighters in Brandon should be getting comparable wages to similar Prairie cities. The union referred to five cities — Prince Albert, Sask., Moose Jaw, Sask., Medicine Hat, Alta., Lethbridge, Alta., and Red Deer, Alta.
The city’s legal team argued that Manitoba’s economy is much different than other provinces, and some of the comparator cities are almost twice Brandon’s size.
"If you place Brandon firefighters into an extra-provincial economy rather than the Manitoba economy … you get an artificial result," Jurczak said.
As for the union’s argument that the wage increase is needed for recruitment and retention efforts, the city’s legal team said it has just been "anecdotal evidence."
"We do not believe that any of them left to earn more money with another fire department," Mitchell said, adding historically there have been about two departures per year.
That’s quite the contrast to what union president Wade Ritchie says.
"Over the last five, six years, Brandon’s lost upwards of 20 firefighters to other departments," Ritchie said earlier this week.
On Wednesday, Ritchie reiterated his comments, saying there is a "huge retention problem" in Brandon.
The union is asking for all overtime to be double time, to which the city’s lawyer said would be "just an additional burden" on taxpayers.
"It would reverse the city’s initiatives to try to reduce overtime costs," he said.
City manager Scott Hildebrand said Day 2 of the process was both interesting and frustrating.
"I think we presented our case and got our voice heard," he said. "We were able to share some of the facts and some of the information we’ve been wanting to share for a long time."
The frustrating part was due to the process, he said.
"What one lawyer or the other lawyer felt was applicable, what was not, the arbitrators having to constantly break," he said.
"But it was an interesting process."
Ritchie said it proceeded how he thought it would, but was surprised by the new documents presented by the city’s legal team.
"It speaks a little bit of desperation maybe," he said. "It definitely caught ourselves and our legal team off guard … but our counsel handled it very well."
The hearing is expected to wrap up today at the Victoria Inn.
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Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 3, 2014