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Kirwan: Targeting non-unionized workers in a wage freeze ‘highly discriminatory’

City councillor says it’s a slippery slope he never wants to go down
Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan. (Supplied)

There has been some controversy on social media about a motion that was introduced by Coun. Signoretti in December, calling for a wage freeze for all non-union city employees and councillors. 

I was adamantly opposed to the motion, which in my opinion, was discriminatory, if not illegal. Unfortunately, some of the points raised during the debate of the motion were nothing less than demoralizing for our employees who have given so much of their time, without additional compensation, in order to maintain service levels during the pandemic. 

I want to take this opportunity to explain why I feel so strongly about this issue.

Many people in our community forget that city workers are property owners. They receive the same services as their neighbours and they pay property taxes based on the market value assessment of their property. No one in the city pays property taxes based on their income level. That would be against legislation governing municipalities. Property taxes are based on assessment, regardless of family income.

That means, if we are looking for funds to reduce the projected municipal levy for 2021, it is highly discriminatory to target one specific group of individuals, such as anyone who is employed as a non-union staff member with the city, and force them to pay more of a share of the general levy than the rest of the property owners in the city. 

We would be reducing their expected and negotiated annual income so that property owners throughout the city would have to pay less. In effect, they would be subsidizing individual property taxes. 

That is not right and I will never agree to it. It is a slippery slope that we never want to go down.

For example, if we felt justified in reducing the wage level of non-union city employees by refusing to pay them their expected annual increase, then why not include unionized employees in the motion? Why pick on a group of employees who do not have the protection of a union? Why? Because the unions would not tolerate that kind of discrimination and would put a quick end to any consideration of this type of action. 

So, just because the non-union employees can’t really fight back doesn’t make it right. 

Why not target all employees of all companies, union or non-union, working in the city who are receiving wage increases in the coming year? Why not increase the taxes of property owned by all teachers, professors, public sector workers, Vale and Glencore employees, and other employees we can identify who will be receiving a salary increase this year? We could determine the amount of their annual wage increase and then bump up their individual property taxes by that amount in order to generate more general tax levy revenue for the city. 

Would we consider that to be fair? Of course not! 

So how is it any more acceptable to prevent non-union employees working for the city from receiving their expected salary increases in order to reduce the general tax levy?

Provincial legislature dictates that municipalities must generate revenue to balance their budget mainly by applying property taxes based on market value assessment and by collecting user fees for services that have an individual benefit to the user. 

We cannot legally calculate property taxes based on the income levels of the occupants or owners of individual property. We must all pay our equal share based on tax rates and property assessment, regardless of our income levels. 

The amount that we need to generate through property tax is determined by the cost of service levels approved by council. It is not fair to expect non-unionized city employees to be forced to give up some of their wages to reduce the amount of the general levy.

I was extremely happy to see that the majority of councillors voted to defeat this motion. Whether they are unionized or non-unionized, city employees are being paid a decent wage that is competitive with the marketplace. These wages have been negotiated and agreed to by all parties. 

I hope that this kind of motion never again comes up for discussion.

Robert Kirwan is the Greater Sudbury city councillor for Ward 5.