Arbitration system broken, says Saint John mayor on heels of new police contract
Saint John Police Commission, police union reached agreement before scheduled arbitration on Feb. 12
A "looming" arbitration process with the city's police officers was weighing heavily on the minds of the Saint John Police Commission members when they reached a new contract agreement last week, Mayor Don Darling said Monday.
"The arbitration process is essentially ignoring the fact that our municipalities are unique, just like our employers are unique around this province, it ignores the ability-to-pay piece, and assumes that we can just ask our citizens to pay more," Darling, a member of the commission, said in an interview with Information Morning Saint John.
"With that as your option looming over you, there's
not a lot of appetite to go to arbitration."
The Saint John Police Commission announced the surprise deal Thursday morning, after it was ratified by members of the Saint John Police Association on Wednesday. It comes more than two years after their last labour contract expired.
The new four-year deal includes wage increases totalling 10.25 percent over four years — 2.75 per cent and 2.5 per cent retroactively for 2016 and 2017 and 2.5 per cent this year and next year.
The wage hike doesn't tell the whole story of the contract, said Const. Duane Squires, president of the Saint John Police
"When you enter into negotiations, it's not all about money," he said. "There are other things your members want and ask for … and it was a lengthy process.
"We feel the package is fair, but we also feel that there were concessions made related to time off and overtime, which our members will directly see, but it also helps, we think, it will help with the financial situation."
Arbitration sided with firefighters
The two sides had been in a deadlock and scheduled to head to arbitration on Feb. 12, just as the city's firefighters union did last month, landing a ruling in their favour.
Darling — who in a statement last week, called the arbitration process broken — said his opinions aren't a reflection of his views toward the city's first-responders.
"This has nothing to do with respect for our members … it does have to do with our ability to pay, and our ability to keep up with wage increases that have continued to be double the rate of inflation," said Darling.
"The arbitration process … has this premise that we can just put taxes up … and I reject that belief the system seems to have."
$9.4 million impact
In the case of the firefighters union, an arbitration board approved a 2.97 per cent annual wage increase from 2015 to 2018, and a 2.96 per cent increase in 2019.
That award "will impact the citizens of Saint John, the folks who pay the bills," by $9.4 million over the period of the contract, Darling said.
"These are pay scales that most people would dream to achieve, and we are investing the largest portion, 33 per cent of our budget into protective services."
He said he's concerned the cost of the agreements will force the city to employ fewer people.
"I don't think anyone wants that either."
$205 million in debt
Meanwhile, the union wants to work with the police commission, despite "the situation the city is portraying about its financial issues," Squires said.
"We believe there are some people that had an agenda, and I guess we worked through that now.
"And the commission, which has members of council on it, passed the ratification vote in a majority, and our members passed it in a majority, and we'll work together and move forward."
Overall the municipality's $152 million budget for 2018 is $1.4 million lower than last year. Darling has said the city is more than $205 million in debt and can't ignore its financial situation.
The police and fire department budgets were each cut by $1.25 million.
With files from Information Morning Saint john