Is the province listening?

Our editorial in last week’s paper has caused a great deal of outcry, sparking a debate about what is a reasonable salary for a emergency worker to be paid.
And it questioned what senior managers in the public sector should be paid.
We missed the mark. Our intent was to question whether or not the wage controls and salary controls the provincial government imposed through the “Public Sector Compensation Restraint to Protect Public Services Act, 2010” were actually being put into practice.
There is a prescribed list of employers to which the freeze applied. It includes the Crown, universities and colleges, hospitals, boards of education, boards of health, and every employer that received at least $1,000,000 in provincial funding.
It does not apply to employees who bargain collectively.
Under certain types of negotiations for emergency workers, when the two parties can’t reach an agreement, a provincial arbitrator is appointed and that person, after hearing arguments and requests from the two disagreeing parties, makes a final decision.
That is what happened in Fort Frances. Unfortunately, the arbitrator is free to make awards outside of the freeze the Government of Ontario imposed on its non-union workers.
The provincially-mandated award to the firefighters also provides signing bonuses to stay on the job.
The arbitrator is expected to look at local economic conditions, and that is laid out in the Ontario Fire Protection and Prevention Act. And in this case, the arbitrator only followed other settlement patterns across the province.
I wonder if the arbitrator considered the wage rollbacks and pension reductions that union workers in the mill had accepted to keep the Fort Frances mill operational, and why the arbitrator didn’t take into consideration those impacts on the local economy.
I wonder where the backbone of the provincial government is. In January, the provincial government agreed to a five percent increase in pay for the Ontario Provincial Police for this year. That already is having a direct impact on the local municipal budgets.
Salaried municipal employees in Fort Frances and other government agencies throughout the district must be wondering why they are being forced to accept wage freezes while their unionized counterparts are seeing increases exceeding the cost of living.
Now the small city and town councils of Ontario have to tell all their salaried employees that there will be no increases until 2013. It appears unfair.
And when the freeze is lifted, councils will face the impossible task of having all of their employees seeking significant catch-up gains they were denied for two years.
It will be a less popular time to be an elected official.
Today the decisions facing council will not win them accolades. What services should they support and continue to fund at full levels? What services can they reduce or do away with?
The discretionary funds that former councils had for governing have disappeared as the provincial government has mandated the municipality to shoulder larger burdens. And council has little or no control over the growing health unit budget or the DSSAB budget.
In Fort Frances, facing one of the higher tax rates in the region, council realizes that the taxpayer cannot keep up with rising costs, yet this latest setback with the firefighters’ agreement has them wondering if the province is listening.

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