Changes promised to bill that would raise firefighting costs
Rural municipalities are warning of double-digit tax hikes if proposed changes to provincial labour laws are passed.
Though most of the focus on the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act has been on increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2019, communities such as StrathroyCaradoc and Lucan are raising the alarm about changes that would cause firefighting budgets to soar.
“This could result in the largest property tax increase that we’ve seen in many, many years,” said Lambton-Kent-Middlesex Progressive Conservative MPP Monte McNaughton.
He’s written to Premier Kathleen Wynne to outline the effect the legislation, scheduled to come into effect Jan. 1, will have on StrathroyCaradoc, Lucan and other municipalities in the region.
Officials in Strathroy-Caradoc estimate the proposed changes would increase the annual cost of the municipality’s volunteer fire department to $3.3 million from roughly $608,000.
Property taxes would have to be hiked 18.4 per cent to cover the added cost, politicians were told this month.
Lucan-Biddulph said it could be forced to scrap its volunteer fire department if the bill passes.
The legislation would require municipalities to pay volunteer firefighters the same as professional full-time firefighters.
The way volunteer firefighters are paid also would change. Instead of being compensated when they respond to a call and for time spent on the call, firefighters would be paid for being on call, an approach that doesn’t make sense to Oxford Progressive Conservative MPP Ernie Hardeman, a longtime volunteer firefighter.
“Somebody being asked to stay at home waiting for a call should in fact be compensated in some way,” he said. “But how would you do that with volunteers when they’re on call all the time?
“It does doesn’t make any sense.”
A volunteer firefighter in Strathroy-Caradoc said firefighters didn’t ask for the costly changes.
“We . . . are not the ones that have ever raised this as an issue,” Matthew Stephenson said. “We don’t do this for the money.”
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) is requesting a special exemption for volunteer firefighters under the Employment Standards Act.
In an interview Tuesday, Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn said the on-call and fair wage aspects of the bill are not targeted at municipalities and the government will amend the bill that will be tabled Thursday at committee.
“We’re going to be issuing an exemption that is very, very specific about that . . . and will exempt emergency and essential services.”
The exemption also will address fears of some municipalities that they will have to pay extra to police chiefs and other high-earning emergency personnel because they’re considered on call.
“You’re talking about people who are already on the Sunshine List, already in management positions,” said Brian Lambie, a representative of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. “(They are) already getting paid to be in situations where you have to respond like that.”
Flynn said changes will address the concern.
“It was never the intent of the government to include emergency and essential services personnel in the bill,” he said.
“When you apply (to those jobs) you know that you’re providing an essential service, you know that you’ll be on call . . . That’s included in the package.”