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Left-winger David Miller couldn't do it. Right-winger Rob Ford can't either. Municipal governments of every stripe are struggling to control the relentless rise in the cost of policing and fire fighting. They are failing. The recent labour agreement between the City of Toronto and its firefighters helps explain why.

The last contract between the city and the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters' Association, Local 3888, ran out on Dec. 31, 2009. When talks to reach a new contract failed, the parties entered a process of mediation and arbitration. They have been at it for two full years.

The city argued strenuously that the arbitrator should make the city's ability to pay the main consideration when deciding what firefighters should get. It provided stacks of budget documents to bolster its case. But when an arbitrator finally handed down an award this week, the firefighters got a generous 14.26-per-cent raise in a five-year contract, closely matching an earlier settlement with police.

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It is a lot more than the city's non-uniformed inside and outside workers got in their recent contracts. The deal will add more than $45-million to the city's wage bill over the five years, bring the salary of a first-class firefighter to more than $90,000 and stretch the city's already drum-tight budget.

No wonder municipalities are asking the provincial government to change the rules to require arbitrators to take greater account of the "ability to pay" issue. As it stands, wage settlements advance in a leapfrog fashion: As one union secures a good deal, others try to match or exceed it and arbitrators base their awards on comparable recent contracts.

Union president Ed Kennedy says the arbitrator only awarded his firefighters what the city gave police "in a freely negotiated settlement." The city retorts that it gave the police a healthy increase only because it knew an arbitrator would come along and give them as much or more.

Either way, the city is faced with a steadily escalating wage-and-benefit bill for police officers and firefighters that seems to have no relation to economic circumstances, the city's straitened circumstances or the settlements being reached with other city workers who are not in the emergency services.

Wages are only part of the problem. The city is paying out millions in death benefits for firefighters who die of cancers that are presumed to have been caused by their work. Provincial legislation that took effect in 2007 says that eight types of cancer – including brain, bladder, kidney, colon/rectum and esophagus – are presumed to be work-related for firefighters. Benefits are handed out without any need to prove they were caused by toxins encountered in the line of duty.

Provincial authorities had allowed 68 such claims for Toronto firefighters as of March. In one particularly costly year, Toronto Fire Services faced a price tag of $6.3-million for such claims, though the annual cost has moderated since.

The TFS argues that, though it wants to be fair and compassionate to its firefighters and their families, the cost was downloaded to cities without regard to their – that phrase again – ability to pay. The city notes in its most recent budget that the presumptive-claims legislation, which extended retroactively to 1960, imposed $100-million in costs on municipalities.

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In this contract, the city managed to win one concession on the issue. The Line of Duty death benefit is to be reduced to three times salary from four times salary. As before, firefighters would also be eligible for a life insurance death payout of two times salary.

Mr. Kennedy says he finds it "very disappointing" that the city even raised the issue of the death benefit. He wonders how city officials could question the entitlement of "a firefighter who has given his life in service to the citizens of Toronto."

But it is benefits like it, imposed on the city from on high, that make it so hard to control the ever-rising cost of providing police and firefighting services.

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