Are police officers getting paid too much?

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Toronto police chief Bill Blair (L) walks by officers lining the roadway at the public memorial for police constable John Zivcic in Toronto in this file photo from December 9, 2013. Blair has served Toronto city councillor Doug Ford with a defamation suit August 12, 2014 over comments Ford made about Blair. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill/Files (CANADA - Tags: OBITUARY CRIME LAW)

More than half the 8,000 members of the Toronto Police Force earned more than $100,000 last year, including one constable who pulled in close to a quarter million dollars, according to figures released under Ontario’s so-called sunshine law.

The data, released Monday by the department under the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act, shows more than 4,100 Toronto officers earned more than $100,000 in 2015. Roughly half of them were pushed into six figures thanks to things like overtime and paid duty — voluntary work on days off at events such as escorting funerals or providing security at sports events.

But with base salaries for constables ranging from roughly $90,000 to $98,000, it didn’t take much to push many officers above the $100,000 threshold required for disclosure on the province’s sunshine list.

The head of the Toronto Police Association calls the list “irrelevant.” The $100,000 threshold dates from 1996 when the salary-disclosure law was first passed, said Mike McCormack.

“In 1996 you could buy a house in Toronto for under $200,000. Today a house in Toronto costs you a million dollars,” he told Yahoo Canada News.

“Gas was 50 cents a litre, today it’s a buck a litre. So what relevance is that number of $100,000 in 1996 to 2015?”

McCormack also questions why paid-duty income is included since 80 per cent of the money is recovered from private-sector operators who contract for those services.

“To me it’s just a red herring,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the reality of how much taxpayers are paying for policing.”

But the Toronto Police Services Board said the list is evidence of the need to review how Canada’s biggest city is policed.

“The list serves as a reminder to all concerned that cost of policing, 89 per cent of which is in labour costs, requires action on the part of everyone with a stake in policing,” the board said in a statement.

Policing costs not just a Toronto problem

According to the web site Payscale.com, Police officers’ salaries in Canada range from $42,313 up to $96,887, with a median salary of $76,466.

The RCMP’s careers web page shows Mounties fresh out of the Regina training depot start at $50,674, rising to $82,108. A superintendent’s pay tops out at $139,916.

Municipalities across Canada are trying to find ways to rein in the cost of emergency services, including police and fire, as residents balk at property tax increases. In some cases, that involves cutting other services to feed police and fire-fighting budgets.

Police unions tend to see the most recent round of contract settlements as a benchmark, said Pat Vanini, executive director of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

“Amongst the police there tends to be this desire to be the highest paid,” she said in an interview.

Since emergency-service workers aren’t allowed to strike, arbitrators are called on to arrive at a contract settlement if there’s an impasse between a union and a municipal government, she said.

Those arbitration awards can be well above what other public-sector workers in a given municipality receive, Vanini said. They then bleed into settlements for other communities, regardless of their ability to pay.

“In Ontario for sure I guess we’ve reached the limit and need to put back in the arbitration system this capacity to pay,” Vanini said.

That’s forced municipal governments to boost property taxes, something smaller communities with weak tax bases have trouble doing.

“You may have to do a four per cent increase just to deal with that one service arbitrated settlement,” said Vanini. “There is this sense that we’ve really hit the wall.”

Cities looking for ways to cut costs

The association wants the Ontario government to review its legislation covering police services to give municipalities more flexibility in meeting policing requirements, such as opening more jobs to civilian workers, who presumably are lower paid.

A study last year by Queen’s University political scientist Christian Leuprecht suggested you don’t need highly-paid uniformed police officers do to things like take fingerprints and transcribe interview and even investigate routine burglaries.

“Police work is complex, difficult, and demanding and should be well compensated,” Leuprecht wrote in his March 2014 report.

“The real question is why police who are making upwards of $100,000 a year are performing so many tasks that are not really core policing duties and that other jurisdictions are delivering as or more effectively, efficiently, and productively through alternative service delivery in the form of both civilianization and outsourcing.”

Mounties have the right to collective bargaining, Supreme Court decides

But it’s unlikely the pressure will ease anytime soon. If anything it may increase. Members of the RCMP, who police many big and small municipalities under contract, recently won the right to collective bargaining thanks to a Supreme Court of Canada decision.

The Mounties lag other municipal police forces by an average nine per cent in pay and benefits, Rae Banwarie, president of the Mounted Police Professional Association, told Yahoo Canada News.

Under the existing rules, the government imposed wage levels based on recommendations from the RCMP Pay Council, which it could ignore, as it did during the budget-slashing that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

The high court gave the government a year to put in place a system of independent bargaining and Banwarie indicated salaries for the national police force should be on par with those of bigger municipalities.

“We’re nowhere compared to where the municipal police agencies are,” he said.

McCormack said police salaries are right in the middle of the pack for skilled blue-collar trades such as plumbers and electricians.

“I believe our officers, for the professionalism and the degree of training that’s required of a police officer today, that wage reflects the challenges of policing fairly,” he said.