COLUMN: The cost of autonomy

The City of White Rock needs to mend fences with its firefighters, but the firefighters need to show more maturity as well.

Only one of the city’s firefighters filled out an employee survey that was recently given to all city employees. The official reaction from International Association of Fire Fighters local 2407 is that firefighters are still upset that the city considered merging its fire department with Surrey’s  – even though that suggestion was turned down by council after a successful campaign by the union against the plan. The rejection came more than a year ago.

Yes, the union had a right to be upset with the plan – even though the stance it took likely cost its members chances at an improved career path, had they been part of the larger and highly respected Surrey Fire Department.

The union could also have thought about the proposed combining of the two departments from a taxpayers’ perspective. White Rock taxes would have been reduced, albeit slightly, with the economies of scale that would have come with one administrative structure instead of two. White Rock has very few tax options available to its residents. There is a small commercial base, no industrial base and little room for growth. Residential taxes pay the vast majority of city expenses.

However, it took its stance, mobilized its members and some members of the public, and won the battle with city council. Over a year later, it’s more than past time to move on.

The city does need to set up a meeting with the union, as suggested by Mayor Catherine Ferguson, and it is important that it take the first step. But it is also important that a union local, particularly one which is part of a union with a rich and highly-respected reputation, and a spirit of professionalism, show maturity. Firefighters are not spoiled children. They are responsible adults who are paid to put their lives at risk on every shift – and they are ready and willing to do so.

Perhaps in its meeting with the union, the city could ask it for suggestions as to how it can trim costs – not just in the fire department, but in general city operations. White Rock does not have much of a future as an independent city if it can’t do a better job of reducing costs and easing up a bit on the tax burden. If it loses its independence, the firefighters will be part of the Surrey fire department whether they like it or not.

While many city residents can afford tax increases each year, many others can’t. It is time city governments, and their employees, realize many of those who pay their salaries do not get annual wage increases, are on limited incomes and find it hard to pay property tax bills that keep rising each year.

One of the great advantages of White Rock firefighters becoming part of the Surrey department would be that it would formalize what has historically been a good working relationship. In addition to offering many more career opportunities, being part of the fire department in B.C.’s fastest-growing city would be exciting.

It’s 2011, not pre-recession 2007. Firefighters and the city need to get past what was once a deep difference in their positions, and come together to serve the citizens of White Rock.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

newsroom@langleytimes.com

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