Editor - Todd Lihou: Are the arbitrators paying the same taxes as me?

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It could be one of those small issues that galvanizes a group of people into action.

It was learned at the last city budget committee meeting that Cornwall firefighters enjoy a little $200 perk that most of us are likely to never see at most other jobs in the private sector.

An arbitrator has ruled the Cornwall Firefighters Association is entitled to $200 a year to buy safety shoes.

On its surface, it’s hardly cause for concern. That means the firefighters in the bargaining unit will collect in the neighbourhood of $7,000 next year to buy the shoes.

But here’s the catch – if they don’t buy the shoes, they still get the money.

Is anyone else giving their head a shake?

Before you jump all over firefighters, take a step back. If you were a firefighter and someone offered you $200 for nothing, I’m betting you would take it too. I would. And firefighters in Cornwall do a helluva lot more than simply put out fires – just ask the kids who benefit from Sparky’s Toy Drive.

But there’s still something not right about them receiving $200 for safety shoes when there is no way to mandate that is the where the money has to be spent.

The firefighters enjoy this perk because a labour arbitrator ruled the Cornwall Firefighters Association should have it. During labour negotiations for an essential service like fighting fires, if both sides can’t agree on a deal, it gets sent to an arbitrator whose decision is binding.

Fair enough – but did this guy just fall off the turnip truck?

There’s nothing wrong with a firefighter being compensated for having to purchase safety equipment, just make sure that’s where they spend the money.

Why couldn’t the arbitrator have ruled, instead, that there is a $200 cap on spending for safety shoes? I’m no labour lawyer, but surely to god a clause that reads: “The employer will pay up to $200 a year for new safety shoes, once proper proof has been submitted via a sales receipt” is more fair for taxpayers.

In the grand scheme of things the money that will be shelled out for the safety shoes is pretty small – about .004 per cent of the city’s $154-million budget.

It’s the principle of the policy that gets under my skin.

And I’m not alone.

Coun. Glen Grant nearly blew a fuse when he found out at Friday’s budget steering committee meeting.

And other councillors, including pro-labour people like Elaine MacDonald, were saying out-of-control costs for protective services like police, fire and ambulance are making it difficult for the city to pay for other things like repairing streets and improving parks.

Coun. Denis Thibault fired a warning shot across the bow of labour associations that represent groups like the police and firefighters.

He asked, rhetorically, what would happen if city council passed a motion that directed people like the fire and police chief to keep spending at a specific dollar amount.

In short, if the fire department budget is capped at $5 million (for example), what will be done to ensure that spending doesn’t exceed that, even though salary increases are mandated by labour agreements?

The short answer Thibault is eluding to is simple – if the salaries can’t be cut, the people could be next, unless another plan is created to reduce costs.

Some municipalities in Ontario have done just that. Coun. Syd Gardiner suggested he knows communities in the province, big and small, where associations have priced their membership out of work because taxpayers can no longer foot the bill.

I’m not here to advocate anyone get laid off – I’ve been there, and it sucks.

But this should serve as a wakeup call for arbitrators and union leaders alike. It’s time to reign in your demands and the awards.

What is worse – shelving the $200 perk, or getting a pink slip?

Organizations: Cornwall Firefighters Association

Geographic location: Cornwall, Ontario

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