Feb 05, 2014
Fire budget increase cut by half in closed-door meeting
Firefighter arbitration cost will be a shocker: LPFA
London Community News
By Sean Meyer
Although final approval is still weeks away, council members settled the London Fire Department budget at a two percent increase for 2014, a sum half of the original request.
But while Fire Chief John Kobarda says he can make that number work, the man who leads the London Professional Firefighters Association (LPFA) has serious concerns over how it was reached.
John Hassan, LPFA president, said he is glad the budget was approved, but he is concerned with the confrontational nature of the relationship between the city and the fire department. That relationship, Hassan said, is explained not only through the budget fight, but also the ongoing arbitration battle between LPFA and the city.
“We need to start lifting off the opacity, and the veils, give us true transparency,” Hassan said. “I think people who were shocked at the bill for Billy T’s will have heart palpitations when they hear how much the city has been spending on the fight with only one labour union.”
London firefighters have been without a contract since 2010 and negotiations between their union and city hall have gone to arbitration. A decision in the arbitration process may not be handed down, Hassan said, before 2015, or even 2016, a situation he called “sickening.”
On the matter of 2014 and the fire budget, the London Fire Department was seeking a four percent hike in funding, which would have added $2.18 million and raised the city’s fire budget to $56.7 million. Instead, council, sitting as the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee on Friday (Jan. 31) voted unanimously to hand over a two percent increase.
The basis for that vote was handled almost completely in-camera as the committee’s only public comments were around what was being cut from the ask — two percent or just slightly more than $1 million.
Kobarda said the committee’s recommendation of a two percent budget increase for the department would allow him to deliver essentially the “same service” as the past two years.
“Basically they are providing enough money to ensure that I can staff the vehicles. It will be a combination of overtime like last year,” Kobarda said. “But what I asked for, and they put in the resolution, is they are going to let me hire an amount of people I believe is necessary to keep things in line, stay within budget.”
Kobarda said the department is down just over 30 vacant positions, but he has been given leeway to hire for a few of these posts. The chief said he is “happy” with the budget from the point-of-view that he has been provided with “sufficient dollars” to run the department as it has been.
“From my perspective there is no downside. We are moving forward; there is absolutely no change,” Kobarda said. “I am not going to be crying foul. Even last year, they gave me an amount of money; we managed to stay on budget. After this year, we will have to see.”
Hassan sees things from a different angle. This is the second time, Hassan said, the chief has asked for a number prior to budget only to have “dire warnings about layoffs” being directed back to him by council. However, this is also the second time the chief hasn’t received the number and yet the level of service remains status quo.
Hassan said he believes the chief is running “a very lean operation,” costing London taxpayers about $0.80 a day for the average household. And yet, he continues to hear how the department’s budget is unsustainable.What further frustrates Hassan is how essentially the entire fire budget was debated in-camera, without the public getting an understanding of how that two percent cut was arrived at.“I think the fire chief needs to be accountable to the citizens and not to the mayor and council,” Hassan said. “There are certain things people take for granted and really want and public safety is a big one. I think the fire chief aught not to be afraid of losing his job if he doesn’t toe the line and perhaps compromise public safety.”
Kobarda said the department is still undergoing a service review, making it hard for him to predict what future service needs will be. However, the real “game changer,” according to the chief, will be that pending arbitration award.
The committee is recommending two percent, but if the arbitrator was to award “significantly more,” Kobarda said it would create a much more difficult situation for council. Hassan said he predicts the arbitration will end up costing in the “high six figures, if not seven figures by the time it is all said and done.” The truly unfortunate thing about that, Hassan said, is that money should be going to the fire department, or some other service, and not into an arbitration fight. “I chuckle when people say we are paying too much in wages,” Hassan said. “Well we aren’t making anything; we are a service-based agency, it is always going to be about wages.”