VERNON - A jump in wages has heated things up between city hall and the fire department.
The City of Vernon is scrambling to come up with $192,000 after settlements in the Lower Mainland resulted in an increase of six per cent in retroactive pay raises for 2010 and 2011. Because of a collective agreement with the firefighter's union, the City of Vernon must match other municipalities in the province.
Council had budgeted to pay $144,879 in retroactive pay raises, and Mayor Rob Sawatzky says it was a shock to find out they owed a total of $336,879.
"To the surprise and dismay of council (and) administration, Lower Mainland settlements were three per cent in 2010 and 2011," Sawatzky says. "That left some unplanned increases we wouldn't have anticipated in these rough economic times."
Funding will come from reserve funds, but capital works projects will likely be put on the back burner to make up for the shortfall. Typically, annual wage increases for firefighters have been in the one to one and a half per cent range, Sawatzky says.
"It's not fair," Sawatzky says of the parity arrangement. "The cost of living is much lower here than in the Lower Mainland, and we don't have trouble attracting firefighters."
Compared to other segments of the city's budget, the mayor says the firefighter salaries are "out of line."
But fire chief Keith Green questions why firefighters would be paid differently based on where they live. "I think in a lot of occupations, they don't base it on that," Green says. "Nurses at St. Paul's will be paid the same as nurses at Vernon Jubilee."
He says Vernon's firefighters put a lot of time and money into their training, the same as firefighters do in the rest of the province.
"To base wages on market conditions—groceries, housing—the arbitrator has, in the past, found that's not relevant," Green says.
The contract is up this December, at which point the city and the firefighters will be negotiating a new deal. The issue has gone to court several times, and the vice-president of the Vernon professional firefighters union (local 1517) wouldn't be too surprised to see it there again.
"We hope it won't come to that, but there's always a chance," Doug Imrich says.
Like Green, he says you can't pay a firefighter based on where they live. "Like teachers, like nurses, we should all be paid the same. The job, the risks are the same across the province," he says.
He says the retroactive pay is out of their control. "It's the nature of the beast," he says. "We negotiate behind the times."
When the times comes to negotiate a new contract, Imrich says the city will "have their own priorities, and we'll have ours."
While he and Green would like to see a renewal of the parity agreement, council is uneasy given the six per cent surprise.
"Will council agree with the last contract?" Sawatzky says. " We'd be hesitant to do that given the recent history."
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