Opinion| Extravagant Public Educator Wage: Affront to Sault Fire Services Staff, Excessive Cost to Taxpayer

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In a touch of irony, if the firefighters union had been involved when two public educators were hired by Sault Ste. Marie Fire Services last fall, they probably never would have walked into a job that paid $103,344 a year to start.

Because the union, under whose jurisdiction these jobs would fall, would have negotiated a much lower pay rate.

Richard Bishop, president of the Sault Ste. Marie Professional Firefighters Association Local 529, told me a first-class firefighter as of the 2014 contract (negotiations have yet to begin on a new contract) makes $89,864.

The public educators, who would never have to lay their lives on the line fighting a fire, were hired at 115%, normally a captain’s rate, of that wage.

“Every union job that I am aware of with the Fire Services has a laddered wage,” Bishop said. “This means you start at a percentage of the top wage, 55% in suppression, and then you get bumped up every year until you reach the top wage.”

“Traditionally, once you are hired you start in dispatch at 55% ($49,425) of the first-class wage. If you stay there for over three years you top out at 70% ($62,904). The only way to get out of dispatch is when new hires bump you out. We haven’t hired any firefighters since March 2015 so the guys in dispatch are stuck at that wage.

“It is a good wage, however, what a slap in the face when someone starts at 115%.”

I would say a slap in the face not only to those in dispatch but to those who have reached first class as well.

Considering the new hires for new positions were going to be union members, it would seem to follow that the union would be involved in setting the pay scale.

This is the route the union would have preferred but it says it was never approached.

And it, like pretty well everyone else, including our city councillors, only found out about the wage rate assigned public educators when the jobs were posted in September 2016.

“We were never approached to talk about the position or the wage of the public educator,” Bishop said in an email. “When the posting went up we approached the administration to say ‘you are supposed to go through the association.’ They had already set the wage in the posting.”

Mayor Christian Provenzano found out the same way.

“I was not aware of the details of the positions, including their salaries, until the positions were posted,” he responded to my email. “Human resource and management functions such as writing job descriptions, grading jobs and posting jobs do not involve mayor and council.

“When I was made aware of the positions and looked at them, the salary struck me as high and I raised the matter with the CAO. Other councillors raised the same concerns with me and I ensured that administration knew that councillors shared the same concern as I.”

I wish they had also shared their concern with us, the taxpaying public.

Foremost among the qualifications required for the high-paying public-educator position were: “Public fire and life safety officer certificate program at the Ontario Fire College with five years full-time experience as a public educator in the Fire Service and/or registered with the Ontario College of Teachers in good standing.

Some of the primary duties and responsibilities of the position included but were not limited to:

Perform and develop simplified community risk profile annually; deliver new and existing fire prevention and safety-education programs; evaluate and quantify existing public-education programs; coordinate annual smoke-alarm program with suppression staff and ensure all program needs are being met; provide ongoing training for suppression staff as it pertains to fire prevention; develop and implement effective media-campaign strategies; maintain city website and social media mechanisms.

I think that is enough to question a wage of $103,344 being attached to the position.

Wondering why council hadn’t asked why the position was to be paid so much more than a first-class firefighter, I replayed, courtesy of Village Media, the Oct. 26, 2015, council meeting at which the realignment of fire services was introduced and approved.

It wasn’t hard to see why none of the sitting councillors at the time questioned the cost of the five new positions the fire chief was suggesting or the cost of them as the main thrust of the proposed realignment was the reallocating of up to 20 front-line firefighter positions through attrition and the addition of 12 to emergency medical services (ambulances).

In light of a long, three and a half hours, and heavy discussion the fact that Fire Services was adding two public education officers, one training officer, one mechanic and one emergency planning officer, probably seemed like small potatoes to councillors, especially since no information in regard to wages was attached.

Coun. Marchy Bruni questioned Figliola as to whether the union had been engaged in discussions about the realignment.

Figliola replied that “on three different occasions he had sought submissions from individuals and got very little response.”

He didn’t say who the individuals were and Bruni didn’t push it but one didn’t get the idea they were with the union, otherwise the chief’s answer would have been a simple “yes”.

I emailed him with the same question this week and didn’t have a response by my self-imposed deadline.

Actually, if you watch the progression of the public educator position as the job posting was being worked up, which is evident in a 93-page package of emails the union got through a Freedom of Information request, there was a point where it was listed at 102% of a first-class firefighter’s wage.

In the final version posted on Sept. 14, 2016, it listed the position at 115% but in somewhat of a contradiction said the wage range was $91,858 to $99,946. My understanding is that those who were hired got the 115%, $103,344, with no graduated rate. I guess we have to hope that they started at the top, that there won’t be more to come.

Actually, it is no longer they. As you will recall from my column of Feb. 18, one, a woman, was permanently laid off after being only six weeks in the job.

Al Horsman, the city’s chief administrative officer, said the person had never been hired, that the city had decided not to go that way because of a review by the office of the Ontario Fire Marshal.

But a letter of termination and words from the former employee herself emphatically contradicted that statement.

And it led to another question: If a review by the fire marshal’s office was the reason for not proceeding, under either scenario, terminated or never hired, why was only one person affected? Why weren’t both accorded the same treatment?

The mayor says human resource and management functions such as writing job descriptions, grading jobs and posting jobs do not involve mayor and council, but I think when it comes to tinkering with the wage scale surely it should.

Because there could be unintended consequences.

I think it will be safe to say that when negotiations on a new contract begin, firefighters, who have to go into burning buildings, will want to close the huge wage gap that now exists with the public educator, who only has to go into schools.

And then there is the question of what the provision of such an excessive wage says to staff, whose salaries have been frozen through 2017.

Doug Millroy can be reached at dmillroy@gmail.com.

 

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