Local politicians, including Kitchener Mayor Carl Zehr, are warning there’s a harsh reckoning coming as both police and fire budgets outstrip the rate of inflation and seriously impinge the financial flexibility of local municipalities.
That might be the usual rhetoric that comes with tough budget deliberations, but this time the argument seems to be sticking. With police costs representing one-third of the regional budget, and fire department costs about 25 per cent of the city budget, these services have a big impact on the bottom line.
Other departments at both the city and regional level have been cut in recent years, but police and fire services have been sacred cows and have avoided the bloodletting.
Regional politicians began expressing their frustration a couple of weeks ago when they noted the police budget has risen by an average of 6.5 per cent per year, compared to 4.4 per cent for other regional programs.
Zehr launched another salvo recently, when he said Kitchener’s fire services are unsustainable and, at $29.6 million, represent the city’s biggest cost. Over the last five years staffing costs have grown by 22 per cent, and the fire service has been asked to cut $480,000 out of this year’s budget.
What’s driving those costs? Wages makes up more than 90 per cent of both local police and fire budgets. A broken arbitration system has awarded police and firefighters wage increases above the rate of inflation, as well as controversial retention pay.
If wages can’t go down, the only way the city and region can reign in those costs is by cutting jobs. Police have already suggested cutting at least eight officers in 2013 and firefighters are probably on the same path.
A reckoning is coming and it promises to be ugly.