|An Ontario Provincial Police cruiser blocks road in this file photo.(QMI Agency files)
A looming 8.5% pay hike for one of Ontario's largest police forces threatens to drive up costs for all cities unless the province fixes its broken contract arbitration system, one civic leader warns.
"Why should police forces negotiate with their municipalities when they know, if they go to arbitration, the chances are pretty good that they're going to get a settlement based on Toronto (police) or the OPP?" said Gary McNamara, president of the Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO).
With the roughly 6,000-member Ontario Provincial Police poised to get an 8.5% pay raise in 2014, after two years of wage freezes, McNamara fears that will trigger a spiral of arbitration decisions awarding other police forces the same.
"This is why it's critically important," McNamara said from Ottawa, where more than 1,600 civic politicians are gathered for their annual AMO convention.
Ontario's contract arbitration system is a hot topic at the convention, where leaders of many cities are under budget guns to hold taxes down.
Because police and firefighters can't strike in Ontario, standoffs over their pay often go to binding arbitration, a third party deciding how to break the impasse.
In many cities, including London, that's led to frustration by municipal leaders that arbitrators tend to award pay hikes given out in big cities, such as Toronto, without regard to whether smaller cities forced to live similar increases can even afford them.
All three political parties in the legislature need to set partisan politics and fix the system McNamara called broken.
"Start working to find consensus on how we can best deal with this situation," he said Tuesday.
But Premier Dalton McGuinty has already said he won't change the arbitration system. A plan to tweak it was rejected by the New Democrats.
Ontario needs to create a system where a municipality's ability to pay is the foundation for an arbitrator's decision, municipal critics say.
Under the Police Services Act, an arbitration board must, among other things, consider all relevant factors, including the employer's ability to pay in light of its fiscal situation and the economic situation in Ontario and the municipality.
The same is true when it comes to arbitrating firefighter contracts, said Jim Holmes, of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association.