City hall was the site of a tense, lengthy showdown Thursday, during which hundreds of Winnipeg Police Service officers and their union representatives came face-to-face with local politicians over proposed changes to the police pension plan.
Following multiple delegations — both for and against the move — a slim majority of councillors voted to unilaterally alter pensions for WPS members, resulting in a potential savings of roughly $12 million per year for the city, once fully implemented.
At stake: the removal of overtime hours as pensionable earnings, a boost in member contributions to 11.5 per cent (from eight per cent), and shifting the onus for unfunded liabilities from city hall onto individual members.
Winnipeg Police Association president Maurice Sabourin said the union will fight the decision with all legal means at its disposal, claiming the City of Winnipeg had no right to alter the pension plan outside of collective bargaining.
"It’s not really about whether it’s a 'platinum-plated pension’ or not. We all recognize there is a need for change. It’s whether they can or can’t do this. Unfortunately, their decision is placing taxpayers at a huge risk," Sabourin said.
"They have an in-house legal opinion that says they can unilaterally change the pension plan. I feel very confident we’re going to be moving forward with an injunction and moving forward to an arbitrator."
Now that the changes have been approved, it remains to be seen if dire predictions from the police union will come true. Following the vote, Sabourin warned there could be a significant exodus of officers filing for early retirement.
“They have an in-house legal opinion that says they can unilaterally change the pension plan. I feel very confident we’re going to be moving forward with an injunction and moving forward to an arbitrator.” - Maurice Sabourin, Winnipeg Police Association president
He also said the result was a "slap in the face" of officers, who already find themselves "frustrated, angry and panicked," due to rising crime rates and overwhelming calls for service.
Mayor Brian Bowman, who voted in favour of the move, said the existing police pension plan was unsustainable and needed to be brought in line with those in place for other civic unions.
"It’s a big decision. It’s a difficult debate... I’m just pleased that after talk for many, many, many years, we’re (moving on) a pretty significant public policy change — one that has been demanded by Winnipeggers for many, many years," the mayor said.
Bowman, alongside Couns. Matt Allard (St. Boniface), Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan), Marcus Chambers (St. Norbert-Seine River), Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), Janice Lukes (Waverly West), Scott Gillingham (St. James) Cindy Gilroy (Daniel McIntyre) and John Orlikow (River Heights-Fort Garry), voted in favour of the motion.
Couns. Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood), Ross Eadie (Mynarski), Shawn Nason (Transcona), Jason Schreyer (Elmwood-East Kildonan), Brian Mayes (St. Vital), Vivian Santos (Point Douglas) and Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan) voted against.
Due to an amendment proposed by Chambers, the changes to the pension plan won’t be implemented until April 1, giving officers time to decide whether filing for retirement is the right decision for their families.
“It’s a big decision. It’s a difficult debate... I’m just pleased that after talk for many, many, many years, we’re (moving on) a pretty significant public policy change — one that has been demanded by Winnipeggers for many, many years.” — Mayor Brian Bowman
The amendment also suggests savings of $14.47 million could potentially be used as a funding source to backfill budget constraints WPS Chief Danny Smyth has suggested could result in fewer officers on the streets.
While Mayes (a lawyer by profession) said he recognizes the need for changes to the police pension plan, he argued the correct way to go about achieving those changes is at the bargaining table. Furthermore, he said those who supported the motion did so under the guise of financial responsibility, but ultimately put Winnipeg taxpayers at risk.
"We are taking $12 million and we’re not putting it into a bank account until the litigation gets sorted out. We’re now saying, ‘Let’s go spend it.' I don’t mind spending it on police services, but every year that goes by you’re taking another $12 (million)," Mayes said.
"This could take years to resolve. If we lose, we owe back $24 (million) to $36 million to various police officers... Without a negotiated settlement, there’s a large element of risk here."
Sabourin also sounded a warning shot for those who voted in favour of the motion.
"Those councillors will never be able to repair that with our membership," the union leader said. "There will be long memories."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Updated on Thursday, November 21, 2019 at 10:19 PM CST: Fixes typo.
November 22, 2019 at 11:33 AM: Updates thumbnail