Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Police, fire budgets raise alarm

Spending on two departments forcing cuts elsewhere: Wyatt

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Russ Wyatt blames wage settlements for high police, fire costs.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Russ Wyatt blames wage settlements for high police, fire costs. Photo Store

The police and fire budgets are out of control and forcing cuts to other departments, city council's finance chairman warns.

Coun. Russ Wyatt (Transcona) said annual spending increases devoted to the Winnipeg Police Service and the Fire Paramedic Service have reached untenable levels, adding most of those costs are the result of generous wage settlements.

"If you're giving four and four-and-a-half per cent (wage) increase to police and fire, it's not sustainable," Wyatt said. "The budgets have become out of control."

The city said earlier this year that based on current revenue projections, it expects shortfalls in its operating budgets of $74 million in 2014 and $94 million in 2015.

The city's 2013 total operating budget is $922.7 million.

Wyatt spent the spring and summer openly speculating about controversial methods to save money -- unpaid leaves for all non-essential staff and cutting $187 million from a wide range of city services and projects -- and said this week other civic departments are forced to make cuts to cover the generous increases given to police and firefighters.

"Our libraries, our (recreational) facilities, areas like public works, are the ones that are impacted because they will bear more cuts than police and fire, even though it should definitely be coming out of those two departments," Wyatt said.

For the 2013 budget, police spending rose 10 per cent and fire paramedic services increased 5.8 per cent. Combined, the two departments consume 44 per cent of the city's operating budget.

Wyatt said the WPS is asking for more than a 10 per cent increase in its draft 2014 budget.

Budgets for both departments are driven in large part by salary costs. The Winnipeg Police Association won salary increases of four and 4.5 per cent in arbitration for 2011 and 2012. Negotiations between the WPA and the city on the next agreement broke down earlier this year and they are going to arbitration again in the spring.

WPA president Mike Sutherland declined comment, but has said in the past wage increases for Winnipeg police have been similar to those earned by police in comparable communities.

Arbitration panels have said in the past police deserve higher wage increases than other civic unions because of the stress, danger and risks police members face compared with other civic employees.

Firefighters negotiated salary increases of 4.04 per cent and 3.39 per cent for 2012 and 2013. Negotiations for the next contract begin in October.

Alex Forrest, president of the Winnipeg firefighters union, said he was surprised by Wyatt's comments, adding Wyatt has supported the department's budgets and negotiated settlements in the past.

Forrest said the city's budget problems cannot be blamed on firefighters, adding wage increases for Winnipeg firefighters have been among the lowest in the country.

Coun. Scott Fielding (St. James-Brooklands), chairman of both the protection and community services committee and the recently formed Winnipeg Police Board, said police and fire are essential services and need to be treated as such.

"Keeping our communities safer does cost a lot of money, but we are cognizant of the fact that we need to spend those dollars smarter," he said, adding the $242-million police budget in 2013 pales in comparison with Calgary's police budget (approximately $440 million). "That's why we're in the process of a police operational review (which is expected to be made public in the fall) to determine if we are spending wisely."

Fielding said police efficiencies come with the right balance of officers on the street. Currently, there are 1,415 sworn officers in the police service, with an additional 400 civilian staff.

Wyatt said pressures put on the budgeting process by the police and fire paramedics departments is compounded by expensive infrastructure work the city doesn't have the funds to do.

He said council may have to consider double-digit property tax increases some time in the future to pay for the infrastructure work if it is unable to find the savings in the operating budget.

CUPE 500 president Mike Davidson wonders how much of the operating budget pie will be left for civic services. He said his union members are already some of the lowest paid city workers in the country and wonders just how much internal, financial damage the city did to itself during the 14-year property tax freeze.

"People may not like it, but the reality is we're playing catch-up right now," Davidson said. "There's no silver bullet. If you want city services, there's always going to be a cost."

Davidson worries the city will continue to contract out services to private interests or eliminate some services altogether to meet budget demands.

Wyatt said despite a proposed large increase in the 2014 police budget, he expects substantial savings will be identified in the outside operational review of the WPS, which he hopes will be presented to council in September or October.

"That operational review will hopefully give us recommendations on how to find efficiencies in the Winnipeg Police Service," Wyatt said.

 

-- with files from Adam Wazny

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2013 B1

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Updated on Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 6:41 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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