“(They) chose to go the arbitration route rather than negotiation. We don’t do this often. I think the last time we had to do an arbitration with (the firefighters) is the late 1980s. It’s not something that’s common for us at all.”
— Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, October 2012.
“We’re stuck on the monetary side of things. We’ve left the city with the fact that we are prepared to come back to the table at any time, so it’s not that we’re not prepared to sit at the table. We believe that this could be dealt with without going to arbitration.”
— Wade Ritchie, president of the Brandon Professional Firefighters/Paramedics Association, earlier this week.
Between the staggering number of employee sick time and overtime claims, and the mind-blowing salary demands by the firefighters union in the latest round of stalled negotiations, the Brandon Fire and Emergency Services department has become the city’s largest headache.
And for taxpayers sitting on the sidelines, the ongoing circus is anything but entertaining.
As the Sun reported yesterday, Coun. Murray Blight (Victoria) has asked the city’s administration to investigate complaints regarding the amount of accumulated sick time within the fire department and look into accusations of sick leave abuse.
In a city-wide graph of sick hours used by department employees that was provided by city manager Scott Hildebrand, Fire and Emergency Services topped the list by a significant margin with an average of 132 hours — more than double the average (52 hours) of all city departments.
According to fire Chief Brent Dane, there were 4,863 sick hours used in the department in 2009, compared to 8,743 in 2012. That’s a huge spike by any stretch of the imagination. And when employees claim sick time within the fire department, other employees must be called in to fill the shift. That reality cost the city in excess of $220,000 for overtime related to covering sick time in 2012.
The news comes at a time when contract negotiations between the City of Brandon and the firefighter/E911 dispatcher union have come to a dead stop.
Firefighter/paramedics and E911 contracts ended in December 2011, and the two sides have been unable to negotiate new agreements. Unless negotiations resume rather soon, it looks like the matter will be referred to arbitration.
But as shown by the quotes at the top of this editorial, both the union and the city are attempting to claim the high road. In reality, they’re both playing dirty, with the union making extraordinary demands and the city employing some hardball tactics.
Wade Ritchie, president of the Brandon Professional Firefighters/Paramedics Association, continues to be outraged by the city’s decision to release details of the union demands: a 17 per cent raise over two years, a 30 per cent increase in benefits for firefighter/paramedics, as well as a 34 per cent increase in pay for dispatchers paired with a similar increase in benefits.
“Our association does not believe in negotiating through the media,” Ritchie told the Sun this week.
Of course not. When details like this come out, it makes the union look incredibly greedy, even as salary costs to the city continue to soar.
But the current city administration has shown itself to be less adept than it should be at keeping costs down — especially salary costs.
That fact is especially clear in its dealings with the Brandon Police Association. In 2012, the city negotiated a one-year deal for a two per cent wage increase, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2012 — this in the midst of a public tax revolt over the city’s ham-handed handling of that year’s budget line. But that little deal came with an added price tag apparently, as evidenced in the next round of contract negotiations, which wrapped up last month.
As we reported, the city negotiated itself into a further financial corner by handing over a 4.44 per cent increase for sworn BPA members with a further wage adjustment “based on comparator centres” as of July 1 of this year.
With arbitration quickly becoming the only option left for the city and the firefighters union, and based on the city’s track record thus far, we can only assume the union will come out on top.
This is simply unsustainable. If the city can’t find a way to reign in surging salary and employee costs, sooner or later it will again face the wrath of the taxpayer.
And that kind of fire isn’t easily extinguished.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 9, 2013