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OPP cruiser. (J.P. Moczulski/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)
OPP cruiser. (J.P. Moczulski/J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail)

Cash-strapped Ontario towns fear budget strains from OPP pay raise Add to ...

Ontario's smaller cities and towns expect the 5-per-cent pay increase the province recently gave to the Ontario Provincial Police to hit their budgets hard, says Thunder Bay's mayor.

The OPP contract frustrates Keith Hobbes in light of Premier Dalton McGuinty's calls for public-sector workers who bargain collectively to help slay a record deficit by taking a two-year wage freeze.

"It just flies in the face of everything they said," said Mr. Hobbes, a former police association president who once fought for higher police salaries.

A Globe and Mail review of 23 contract settlements reveals that the government's public-sector wage restraint policy was a failure. Employers will pay wage increases totalling $126.4-million, or an average of 1.6 per cent, to tens of thousands of workers in universities, hospitals, long-term care homes and the provincial police, the review showed.

As police in many cities and towns across Ontario head to the bargaining table, Mr. Hobbes and some fellow northern mayors worry that these deals set a worrisome tone for negotiations, bolstering the precedent established by half a dozen municipal forces including Hamilton, Durham and Waterloo that settled last year, most winning 3 per cent annual wage increases.

Mr. Hobbes thinks all forces look to the OPP and Toronto contracts. If OPP officers who police smaller nearby towns are much better paid than his local officers, that puts "backs up." And he fears the OPP could raise the fees it charges small towns for its services to help pay the new salaries, burdening towns hit hard by the recession.

"It's going to be hard to toe the line when that benchmark has been set," he said.

The Ontario Provincial Police Association's contract includes a 5.075-per-cent increase in the first year, followed by a two-year freeze. Karl Walsh, the association's president, has argued his members showed they are "good corporate partners" by taking smaller salary increases in their last contract, and were simply catching up.

A government official said the expectation is that the wage freeze the OPP is taking in the second and third years of their contract will help "drive down" some municipal settlements, including arbitrated ones.

But Mr. Hobbes counters that a clause in the contract that guarantees the OPP will be the province's highest paid force at the end of the three-year term nullifies the effect of the last two years.

"Is it really zero and zero? It's not, because down the road it could be a 10 [per cent increase]" he said.

Opposition members at the provincial legislature criticized the OPP deal.

"It shows the government talking out of both sides of its mouth," said New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath.

The wage increase for the OPP is "ridiculous," Progressive Conservative finance critic Norm Miller said. "It just shows they aren't serious about restraint."

Mr. McGuinty reiterated on Thursday that there will be no money from the province to cover wage increases for new public-sector contracts.

"I think everybody knows that they're going to have to find savings from within," he told reporters. "They need to do that in a way that doesn't compromise the quality of our public services."

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