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Police officers and firefighters in Ontario received $485-million worth of pay hikes over and above raises given to other municipal employees between 2010 and 2014.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Police officers and firefighters in Ontario received $485-million worth of pay hikes over and above raises given to other municipal employees between 2010 and 2014.

That eye-popping number, calculated by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), quantifies the cost to cash-strapped cities and towns of repeated pay hikes to emergency workers, and comes amid a nationwide debate over the ballooning cost of police and fire services.

The AMO says the reason for the big pay bumps is the provincially-controlled arbitration system that tilts in favour of unions and regularly awards hefty raises.

"We've seen a dramatic increase," AMO president Gary McNamara, mayor of the Southwest Ontario town of Tecumseh, said in an interview. "It's now eating up at least a third or better of municipal budgets; it's very difficult to sustain. Something has to give. You can bend so much, but we're at the breaking point."

The AMO calculates that costs of emergency services in the province have increased at roughly three times the rate of inflation annually since 2002. The fear is that such massive sums are squeezing out municipalities' ability to pay for other priorities.

"What does $485-million buy? It would buy a lot of infrastructure improvements in our communities: more social housing, more roads; we could repair more bridges. All of those are great opportunities that we're certainly losing," Mr. McNamara said. "It's a lot of money that could have been used in other areas."

Because police and firefighters are prohibited from striking, impasses in contract talks are resolved by a provincial arbitrator. When looking at what raises to award, arbitrators base their decisions on pay levels at other emergency-services departments across the province; this means that if one or two municipalities give police and fire big raises, the arbitrators will award similar raises in other cities and towns.

It's particularly tough for smaller communities, Mr. McNamara said, which are often obliged to pay emergency-services staff wages comparable to those offered in big cities, despite a much smaller tax base and lower cost of living. "Should a police officer in Toronto make the same as an OPP officer that's policing Kenora? Or Cornwall? Or Windsor?" he said. "Is a snowplow operator in Windsor making the same salary as a snowplow operator in London or Cornwall or Kenora? I guarantee you the answer is no."

The AMO contends the solution is for Queen's Park to rewrite the law to stop arbitrators from replicating the same raises across the province.

The main test instead should be what a municipality can afford – a number an arbitrator could determine by looking at what raises other employees in the same municipality are getting. If such a guideline had been followed, the AMO calculates, Ontario municipalities would have saved $111.6-million in policing and $72-million on firefighting costs in 2014 alone.

Labour Minister Kevin Flynn's office says it is looking into the problem, but makes no promises. Spokesman Craig MacBride said Friday Mr. Flynn is consulting with the AMO as well as police and fire unions trying to find "consensus" on the issue.

"Minister Flynn has shared a consultation document on the topic with select stakeholders for initial feedback and remains committed to the goal of building a sustainable model that works for municipalities, first responders and taxpayers," Mr. MacBride wrote in an e-mail.

It is not clear why the government feels the need for more consultation. Municipalities have raised the problem for years, and the province has studied it extensively.

In 2012, then-premier Dalton McGuinty's government tabled legislation to reform arbitration, and his Liberals reached an understanding with the Progressive Conservatives to get the bill through an opposition-dominated legislative committee.

But at the last minute, the Liberals watered down one part of the bill: They changed a 12-month time cap on arbitration proceedings to 16 months. A senior Liberal source said the government made the change after the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) lobbied Mr. McGuinty's office. The PCs protested the move by voting against the reforms, and the legislation sank.

Police and firefighter unions have thrown their weight around at election time.

Both Mr. McGuinty and Premier Kathleen Wynne regularly appeared at election campaign stops flanked by union members in yellow shirts emblazoned with a Professional Fire Fighters logo. The OPFFA has also helped fund Working Families, a union umbrella group that ran attack ads against the PCs.

According to disclosures with Elections Ontario, the OPFFA gave Working Families $100,000 during the 2014 election campaign, and also spent $74,718 on its own advertising.

The Ontario Provincial Police Association, meanwhile, spent $41,570 on advertising during the 2014 campaign, including producing two ads slamming then-PC leader Tim Hudak, who had promised to overhaul the arbitration system if elected. "We work hard every day. We risk our lives," one ad began, with a shot of a funeral for a fallen police officer. "Tim wants to cancel our contract, cut our pay, cut pensions for new hires. … We're here for you. Who is Tim Hudak here for?"

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version and an earlier digital version of this article incorrectly included paramedics with police and firefighters regarding the cost and rules for emergency workers. In fact, paramedics are not subject to the same arbitration rules. This digital version has been corrected.

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