Winnipeg's police union is challenging city hall’s decision to unilaterally impose changes to the benefits provision of the police pension plan.
Winnipeg Police Association president Maurice Sabourin served Mayor Brian Bowman with papers after Tuesday's executive policy committee meeting, advising him the union is filing a grievance alleging city hall is acting in bad faith in imposing the pension changes.
Meanwhile, Coun. Brian Mayes, a member of Bowman’s EPC and a former lawyer who specialized in labour and pension law, told reporters he’s seen the city’s legal opinions supporting unilateral action and said he’s not convinced the city has the authority to make those changes.
"I’ve seen the city legal opinion — I don’t think (unilateral action) is a slam-dunk for the city," he said.
Mayes was the only dissenting vote at the meeting; EPC supported unilateral changes to the pension plan by a vote of 6-1. The proposal goes next to council.
The administration is proposing dramatic changes to the pension plan, arguing the requirement that city hall cover all liabilities is unsustainable for taxpayers.
The administration is proposing to shift $12 million in annual costs from city hall onto individual police members via three changes: removing overtime as a pensionable earning; increasing officers' contributions and reducing city contributions; and changing early retirement provisions.
The administration proposes allocating $1.5 million of the savings back to the Winnipeg Police Service budget, and allowing council to decide how to re-allocate the remaining $10.5 million in annual savings on other civic services.
Mayes said he agrees with the police union that any changes to the benefits provision of the plan can made only through bargaining, and he urged the city to go that route.
Coun. Kevin Klein, who is also chairman of the Winnipeg Police Board and former publisher of the Winnipeg Sun, said he’s had extensive experience in collective bargaining and told EPC that the move is unprofessional and insulting to police officers.
Bowman, who made overhauling police pensions a campaign commitment in the 2018 civic election, defended the proposals, arguing the $12 million savings could be better spent in other areas.
"It’s incumbent on us to ensure the resources are there for members of our public service to carry out the important duties that we expect of them," Bowman told his EPC members. "This does provide us with that opportunity to make some changes that allow a better allocation of resources."
Bowman said the city was forced to impose the changes only after the police union refused to make any concessions on changes to the plan.
"The union’s been pretty clear — they oppose this," he told reporters, explaining he doesn’t believe that continued discussions or negotiations with the police association will result in the changes he wants to achieve.
"If we don’t make the changes as contemplated now, the implications and effects on the resources are going to become more acute as time goes on," the mayor said.
"Change is not easy but the unsustainability of the plan for taxpayers is something that the longer we delay, the more drastic the implications and effects could be."
Sabourin told reporters the proposal is a "threat" against the officers of the Winnipeg Police Service, adding he believes Bowman is using the issue to force some officers to retire now and use those savings in other departments.
Sabourin said the union will exercise the provision of the collective agreement that calls for disputes to be settled before an arbitrator, adding the union will also request an arbitrator to order the city to take no action until the dispute has been heard and a decision on the city's actions determined.
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.