It took the Regional District Okanagan Similkameen ‘s Board of Directors a while to get started, but once they did, they sharpened their pencils and got down to work with the task of formulating a budget for 2014 at a meeting held on December 12.
The board spent the morning reviewing a number of contentious change and grant requests as they attempted to prepare a version of the document that could pass first reading at the December 19 regular board meeting.
Regional district deadlines for budget completion are tighter than for municipalities, as the RDOS must have its budget completed by March 31. The budget needs first reading by the board before the regional district can embark on its annual public consultation process in the new year.
A staff memorandum outlining plans to standardize regional district fire department payrolls ran into stiff opposition from directors who had little appetite for the hefty tax increases the plan would have imposed on several fire department budgets.
The memorandum proposed a three tier model based on call volume. It offered stipends of $8,000, $12,000 and $15,000 for fire chiefs, depending on the number of service calls the department had on an annual basis.Officers would also be subject to a tiered rate of pay, and non-officers would receive a rate of $20 per hour, across the board. The rate structure, it was suggested, could be implemented over a four year period.
The proposal would have enormous tax implications for two of the regional district’s smallest fire departments, Tulameen and Willowbrook, who would see average tax increases of $65.45 and $233.05, respectively, per residence. (Presently, neither department pays stipends or wages to their firefighters.)
“We’re trying to advance a little bit from personal opinion to (realize) a regional standard for what would be fair to pay a fire chief and other members of our fire departments.,” CAO Newell explained to the board.
Oliver rural Director Allan Patton announced his opposition to the proposed changes, noting that his area was looking at a 10 per cent increase, and that was unacceptable.
The definition of regional firefighters – as to their status as employees of the regional district, or volunteers – was contested after Cawston Director George Bush described the non-payment of Willowbrook firefighters as “criminal.”
“Well, they are volunteers,” answered Patton.
“They are employees,” Newell assured the board.
Emergency Services Supervisor Dale Kronebusch was asked to explain not only why, but how the report came to be, after Keremeos Director Manfred Bauer indicated that Keremeos fire department officials had not expressed any concerns about remuneration.
Kronebusch indicated that volunteerism was struggling throughout the province, and many volunteers were offering their time in service to the community without compensation for such things as child care, while engaged in that service.
The recent safety audit also illustrated the need for departments to provide certain administrative initiatives on behalf of the regional district.
He said that he came up with a starting figure for fire chiefs of $1,500 per month – $18,000 per year – as “some money, not a lot of money” in order to provide an incentive for them to continue to do the work in addition to work required by the RDOS. Since that
“starting point” the proposal has been re-tooled to a tiered system based on call volume, Kronebusch said.
Discussions around the issue revealed a general consensus that the region’s firefighters should be paid, Kronebusch continued, noting that the regional average rate of $9 an hour wasn’t even minimum wage. In the face of present day costs for firefighters needs, such as child care, it was decided that $20 an hour was a fair rate for general members.
“That (amount) seemed to be palatable,” Kronebusch said, “I did speak to, some of the fire chiefs, not all, because at that time, it was a moot point.The decision whether to pay them by the hour, or a stipend, that really needs to come through the board.”
The move to standardize salaries is part of a broader move to standardize all regional fire departments in terms of equipment, procedures and other categories, as well as being prompted by the safety report, Kronebusch added.
CAO Newell expressed the need for the regional district to raise the standard of its fire departments, citing the case of Tulameen, where Kronebusch had previously explained the department raising money through bottle recycling.
Directors, for the most part, expressed a high degree of resistance to the $285,000 proposal. Many expressed the view that it was the general membership, the “worker bees” that needed a rate review, not the officers, most of whom were well entrenched in their positions. There was some consensus amongst the directors that all fire departments receive some sort of remuneration for both executive and general positions, the amount of which needed further discussion.
After further lengthy comment, the board agreed to form a committee to make changes to the proposal in time for the December 19 budget meeting.
What the directors said:
“This is the wrong way to go about policy change, this late in the budget process… coming at this stage, when we’re finalizing a budget, with the overall corporate and rural budget, you’ve got a five per cent upward push… I’m having trouble explaining any tax increase.
There’s no increased in assessed value, no increase in construction – you might argue for some increase in inflation, but the taxpayer’s going to get it in the neck.”
– Director Tom Siddon, Area “D”
“I’ve got the Tulameen as a department, and then five other fire associations, one with a fire chief with lots of experience, and first responders, who have more calls than Tulameen, and of course, he’s outside of that (tiered) grouping, so he gets nothing.
I also talked to another, who has a 12 person team with first responders, a new fire department, and in her opinion, she thought if we brought this into her department, it would ruin the value and and community input into that department.
We can’t afford this, and I actually think it would be disruptive.”
– Director Brad Hope, Area “H”
“Right now, we’re breaking the law, and this board is breaking the law, there’s penalties for that, we should be careful that a disgruntled firefighter doesn’t come back and sue for lost wages for the last five years, and take everyone with him… They are employees, they have to be paid.”
– Stu Wells, Osoyoos Director
“I just need some clarification on compensation. If you have a zero wage, and you get hurt, is your compensation zero?.. I really think, we have firefighters and executive that aren’t getting anything, and if something happens there’s no compensation.
We need to do something and we need to do something about it now.”
– Area “B” Director George Bush
“We have skilled people, able to do anything… but the potential to for injuries is huge, and one of the biggest challenges for people who are very fit and physically minded people is the paperwork aspect, which is what (you’re) looking for, the administration, and I would say that this solution, as far as raising money for executives, is a little, it’s a little bit, I don’t want to say shortsighted, but it kind of is, because the solution has to be from an organizational standpoint, if what the regional district needs is standardization.
Why don’t we send around an administrator and let the people who are doing the fire work, do the physical stuff, really function and better themselves that way.”
– Angelique Wood, Area “G” Director