The standoff we are seeing in Hamilton over the police budget is but a foretaste of what could become a more widespread push-back by Ontario municipalities over the cost of emergency services. The battlefield will be local council chambers, but the key to a solution rests at Queen’s Park.
We are in the current state of affairs because municipal councils have been conditioned to avoid at all costs having public sector salary disputes (which is the real issue with the police budget) referred to a provincial arbitration process that has become hopelessly disconnected from fiscal reality. The result has been wage increases for Police and Fire that have greatly outstripped the inflation rate.
Hamilton is not the only municipality digging in over its police budget. In Waterloo region the police budget increased by 7 percent, but wage pressures ate up most of the increase and there isn’t even enough money to replace 8 officers who retired last year. The chair of the Waterloo police board states the obvious — increases of the size just approved are not sustainable. In London the council sent back a police budget request for a 3.6% increase and it came back $600,000 lighter. Ottawa held its police budget increase to 2.5 percent. In the case of London and Hamilton councillors are really talking over the heads of their local police boards.
The message is clear for Queens Park — fix a compensation system that we simply can’t afford any more. In what may be a first step in addressing the problem, there is a suggestion that the Ministry of Community and Public Safety may start moving towards province wide bargaining by imposing a uniform expiry date for all new police collective bargaining contracts.