Fire levy pays for lawyers’ bills

The MFB has confirmed it used nearly $5 million of Fire Services Levy money to pay lawyers and consultants in the past year. The MFB CEO says he would rather spend the money on community safety! Brigade v union Money spent on ‘legal wrangling’ The head of Melbourne’s fire brigade has revealed that money collected from Victorian property owners is being used to foot expensive legal bills in a long industrial dispute with the firefighters’ union.

The bitter fight over the Metropolitan Fire Brigade’s bid to tear up a 2010 employment agreement which it claims is inflexible and gives too much power to the United Firefighters Union – culminated in two months of hearings in the Fair Work Commission but there has been no final ruling. Several other disputes have been previously fought out in the tribunal.

In a video recording of a recent firefighters’ forum, MFB chief executive Jim Higgins revealed that public funds raised through the fire services levy – imposed on all Victorian property owners to help fund fire brigades – were also going towards rising legal and consultant expenses. His comments raised concerns over use of funds for purposes other than protecting the public from fire.

“Funding for the fire service, for the CFA and MFB, comes through the government raising the fire services levy as a property levy. It is allocated to us through the Department of Justice and comes to us on a quarterly basis,” Mr Higgins said.

“We have no particular allocation that is provided for legal expenses. But I agree … absolutely, we could use the money to deliver community safety outcomes in preference to using it to fund expensive legal issues.”

Mr Higgins told the forum he wanted to see a “significant change” in the sometimes hostile industrial relationship between the fire brigade’s management and union. But in a statement he said the MFB had been “forced” to repeatedly take disputes to the Fair Work Commission because of union interference in operations.

“During the heatwave last January, the UFU tried to prevent the MFB from providing nine additional appliances and crews to assist Ambulance Victoria as first responders to help the elderly and vulnerable Victorians,” he said.

“The MFB was forced to go to a late-night Fair Work hearing to help us put these appliances on the road and provide these critical services.”

Union secretary Peter Marshall said the MFB, not the firefighters, initiated the industrial legal fight. He said the Napthine government was spending taxpayers’ money to wage “ideological war” on public-sector workers including teachers, nurses, paramedics and firefighters.

“Victorians should be outraged that their taxes are being used for political means – to attack firefighters, and to try to lower the current number of firefighters and trucks needed to protect Melbourne,” he said.

Ratepayers Victoria president Jack Davis said using the fire services levy to fund the fire brigade’s “legal wrangling” was inappropriate.

“Now that every household is paying the levy, they are getting money they never had before … and it is being treated like a great, big slush fund.”

According to the fire brigade’s 2013-14 annual report, tabled in Parliament last week, it spent almost 10 per cent more in legal costs, up from $3.9 million to $4.3 million; and almost three times as much in consultant fees, from $303,000 to $874,000. Meanwhile less was being spent on training, development, communications, uniforms and plant and maintenance equipment.

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