When there’s an emergency, you can count on fire fighters and police to respond. But paying for their services is becoming more difficult, according to municipal officials. They say wage increases are eating away at their budgets faster than taxpayers can handle.

“When those wage increases are increasing at a rate greater than inflation for example, you have to turn to the taxpayer to pay, and you're always concerned about the taxpayers’ ability to pay,” said regional councillor Sean Strickland.

Data from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) indicates first responders in the province have received significant wage hikes compared to other government workers.

“Our calculations from 2010 to 2014 [show] if police and fire fighters were to get the same increases as other public employees, it would have saved municipalities about $485 million,” said AMO president Lynn Dollin.

Nearly seven out of ten Waterloo Region police officers made more than $100,000 last year, according to Ontario’s “sunshine list” of the province’s top earners. That’s a jump of almost 300% from 2010.

“It takes a lot to be a police officer. We are no longer the grade ten individual pounding the beat [and] shaking doors. It is a high-stress and high-qualification profession,” said Paul Perchaluk, president of the Waterloo Regional Police Association.

The number of Waterloo fire fighters on the sunshine list has increased by more than 180% since 2010, while 200% more Kitchener fire fighters and about 350% more Cambridge fire fighters were on the list.

A provincially imposed arbitration system often gets the blame for the cost of fire fighters and police.

The Waterloo police association said it hadn’t used the arbitration system in their last two rounds of contract talks, but municipal leaders said negotiations are based on a one-size-fits-all system.

“The arbitration system needs to change, so that arbitrators can make awards based on conditions in local communities,” said Strickland.

The average household in Waterloo Region paid about $456 for policing in 2010. That figure is now $603.

Ontario’s ministry of labour has said it is looking at making changes to the arbitration process, and is speaking to officials are both sides of the issue.

With reporting by Nicole Lampa