By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
It took almost half a day, but city council has finalized the 2019 budget.
At the end of the marathon final deliberation, councillors passed a 1.88 per cent increase on the residential tax levy.
The increase means an approximately $40 increase on the average Oshawa house assessment of $356,000.
The 1.88 per cent increase was down from the 2.65 per cent bump originally presented by staff in December.
Support of the budget was not unanimous as councillors John Neal, Rosemary McConkey and Brian Nicholson voted against it.
While the budget includes thousands of items, the contentious issue on the final day of deliberations was fire services.
Council recently approved revamping the city’s Fire Master Plan, first introduced in 2013.
However, Ward 2 regional councillor Tito-Dante Marimpietri wanted to address some issues sooner rather than later.
“Community safety is important and it doesn’t really wait for reports and consultants,” Marimpietri said.
Currently, there are 33 personnel (32 firefighters and one platoon chief) on duty during each shift in the city.
Marimpietri sought to increase that figure to 37 by adding four firefighters per shift.
Nicholson, who seconded the motion, said while the city’s population and growth have increased significantly over the past decade, the level of fire suppression staff has not.
“We don’t seem to want to address the elephant in the room,” he said.
While he believes the problem can’t be solved all at once, they must start somewhere.
“No one’s ever said to me you are spending too much on fire services. No one’s ever said to me you are hiring too many firefighters,” Nicholson said. “What I heard was people were not happy with the level of fire service, they were not happy with response times, and they want us to improve it.”
Fire Chief Derrick Clark was critical of the motion, at one point calling “it out of order” because staffing concerns would be addressed in the updated Fire Master Plan.
“There are many factors that need to go into these decisions,” Clark said. “We need a proper report, and a footprint of where the fire service needs to go for the future.”
The chief said the only way to achieve what was proposed in Marimpietri’s motion is “through overtime, or we would have to hire additional firefighters.”
However, Clark added having 36 firefighters on duty every shift wouldn’t equal a full truck of staff, but “just more bodies on one truck.”
To put a new truck into service, Clark said it would likely have to be achieved through increased overtime, something he doesn’t recommend.
In a tight vote, council eventually supported Ward 4 regional councillor Rick Kerr’s motion to refer the discussion to the Fire Master Plan process.
Marimpietri, Neal, Nicholson, McConkey and Ward 4 city councillor Derek Giberson voted against the motion.
Moving back to the topic of overtime, Nicholson noted Oshawa had paid out $934,000 to firefighters for extra hours in 2018, despite only budgeting $530,000.
Commissioner of community services Ron Diskey said overtime had decreased through 2016 and 2017 but spiked last year.
Diskey said this can be linked to a larger issue of “unexplained absenteeism.”
There were more than 21,000 work hours lost due to sick time in fire services last year, up from about 14,000 in 2017.
When the city initiated its 24-hour shift pilot project, Diskey said staff was told sick time would likely be reduced, but the opposite had happened.
However, Nicholson said paying out almost $1 million in overtime was the larger issue and put forth a motion to hire four additional firefighters in 2019.
“There is no doubt in my mind, we will need an additional 16 to 20 firefighters moving forward. We can do it incrementally,” the Ward 5 representative stated. “You have to start somewhere. You can pay it in overtime or you pay it through [hiring more] firefighters.”
Ward 3 regional councillor Bob Chapman said while there is no doubt the city will need more firefighters, he wasn’t comfortable with the motion.
To him, hiring four firefighters simply on the suggestion of the union would “circumvent” the process of revamping the fire master plan.
Diskey estimated it would cost between $400,000 to $500,000 to hire four new firefighters, and was doubtful the city would save that much in overtime as a result.
Kerr spoke against Nicholson’s motion as well, calling it a “band-aid solution.”
Giberson was in favour, asserting it would be “better than staying static…in a state of inertia in our hiring processes.”
The motion to hire more firefighters eventually failed.
During the debate, there were some tense moments between staff and council.
At one point, Nicholson spoke of a “management problem” in regards to increased sick time taken by firefighters.
City manager Jag Sharma took offence to Nicholson’s comment, saying it was out of line.
However, Nicholson then clarified he meant the problem was caused by mismanagement of fire services by previous councils.
“We have not supplied our department with sufficient resources to do the job. We have to rely on overtime, that is why we have the spike,” he explained. “We can’t as a council be blaming staff or the firefighters.”
Marimpietri said he found the dialogue had gone from “respectful to disrespectful, very quickly.”
He said it may just come down to a conversation where some staff and councillors admit “we aren’t comfortable having a certain level of service.”
Noting she had observed a “lack of respect from various sources on the issue,” Ward 2 city councillor Jane Hurst suggested taking “a step back.”
“Community safety is on our shoulders to bear. There is a root cause to all of this,” she said.
Council also approved $200,000 in funds to address homelessness and the rising opioid crisis, known as the O.U.R. program.
The program will particularly set aside funds to protect city maintenance workers who are encountering more needles and syringes, and also to plan for future collaborations with external agencies and Durham Region.
Carter told The Oshawa Express he was “really happy about the structure of the budget,” namely because council added no debt and didn’t take money from reserves.
“We are spending over $29 million in capital projects, and we are looking to keep improving services,” the mayor stated.
Carter said with downloading of provincial services possible, council needed to be “very proactive in terms of our planning” in the budget.