Ottawa

Township sounds alarm over possible spike in firefighting costs

Augusta Township is worried its volunteer firefighting department could go up in smoke if the province's minimum wage law goes ahead as planned.

Bill 148 could double fire budgets for small municipalities such as Augusta Township

Augusta Township says it could become significantly more expensive to provide fire services to its residents if revisions to Bill 148 go ahead. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

An eastern Ontario township is worried its volunteer fire department could go up in smoke if the province's minimum wage law goes ahead as planned.

Augusta Township is urging the province to exempt it from changes to Bill 148 that would see volunteer firefighters placed on call for three hours a day — and therefore paid for that time — regardless of whether a fire is taking place.

"For all small municipalities, it's going to be wildly cost-prohibitive," said Rob Bowman, the township's fire chief.

Bill 148 is perhaps best known as the legislation that, beginning next year, will boost the minimum wage from $11.40 to $15 per hour.

However, it would also include other changes to the workplace — including equal pay for part-time workers and an increase in on-call pay for firefighters and other emergency workers.

I'm really hoping that our government realizes the impact this is going to have on small-town Ontario.- Rob Bowman, Augusta Township fire chief

Bowman told CBC News that Augusta Township's 37 volunteer firefighters are paid about $20 an hour when they're sent to a call, which currently works out to a few thousand dollars per volunteer per year.

If Bill 148 goes ahead unchanged, that would amount to an additional $700,000 in salaries and more than double the fire department's total annual budget, Bowman said.

Volunteer firefighters differ from other on-call employees in that they don't have to respond to calls if they can't or don't want to, Bowman said.

If the bill isn't amended, Augusta Township might be forced to reduce the number of firefighters on call to three or four each week, he added.

"I'm really hoping that our government realizes the impact this is going to have on small-town Ontario," Bowman said. "Because that's who [uses] volunteer firefighters as their fire services."

Fire services could be 'reconsidered'

On Monday, the township passed a motion urging Premier Kathleen Wynne and Labour Minister Kevin Flynn to exempt their municipal employees from Bill 148.

The bill's ambiguity around volunteer firefighter departments has also captured the attention of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO).

Lynn Dollin, president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, said Bill 148's current on-call salary provisions could be 'devastating' to communities across the province. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

On Tuesday, AMO made a submission to the province's standing committee on finance and economic affairs, suggesting that — among other things — the bill as it stands is "not clear enough" as to how it would affect volunteer firefighters.

The bill passed second reading on Oct. 18 and is now at the amendment stage.

Without exempting volunteer firefighters from the on-call provisions, the bill would require more than 100 Ontario municipalities to "reconsider what fire services will be provided," the submission said.

"It would be devastating to municipalities large and small," AMO president Lynn Dollin told CBC News.

Dollin said her organization has met with Flynn to discuss those provisions, which they believe could also apply to non-emergency municipal workers in fields like child care and public health.

"[The minister] repeatedly tells us and others that municipalities are not the intended target," Dollin said.

"We can be told that, but unless the actual bill reflects that, there's going to be an issue."

In an email to CBC News, the ministry said they are continuing conversations with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario on the issue.

After passing second reading, the bill has since been referred back to the standing committee on finance and economic affairs, and further amendments will be determined after those hearings, the ministry said.

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