February 21st, 2024

Council seeks more info on proposed new hires

By COLLIN GALLANT on November 17, 2022.

City council held a special session Wednesday to discuss the proposed budget, asking its authors for more information to relay to the public regarding the would-be addition of 27 new city employees.--NEWS FILE PHOTO

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

City councillors keyed in on planned hiring at city hall while questioning administrators about the proposed 2023-2024 budget in a special session on Wednesday.

The plan, unveiled last week, calls for adding 27 city positions in a two-year span, bringing the civic workforce to 1,061.

That’s a three per cent increase over current numbers, but still fewer full-time employees than in 2020.

However, with an eight per cent total tax increase proposed over two years, council members said they are hearing from the public and want a job-by-job explanation before formal debate next week.

In a new Committee of the Whole process, Mayor Linnsie Clark also asked for item-by-item explanations of how new projects or program changes relate specifically to council’s strategic priorities.

It will all be due Monday, when council formally debates the budget ahead of a potential vote on Dec. 5.

“This won’t conclude the budget process,” said Clark, while opening the proceedings. “We will continue to debate over the next couple council meetings.”

After the 150-minute meeting, members postponed the final two division presentations to regular council.

The draft budget proposes raising taxes by 4 per cent in each of the next two years, dedicates additional investment income and raises a utility fee that feeds directly into city coffers.

It also boosts spending, largely due to general inflation, after cost cutting and tax rate freezes in two of the past three years.

“It reflects a desire to continue at a certain level of services in the community, and that’s the desire of the community,” said corporate services head Dennis Egert, adding that the financial fit budget process from 2015 to 2022 “significantly reduced head count, but we need to reinvest in key areas.”

Coun. Shila Sharps said workforce would become a common theme, and Coun. Andy McGrogan formally requested the new positions be explained more fully.

“I’ve been getting lots of calls about (the hiring),” said McGrogan. “Are these boots on the ground, are they middle managers?

“It would be helpful for the community, and the people across the council, for an explanation … What is the position and how does it serve the community?”

If approved as is, the city’s payroll would rise by about $4.9 million, equally split between general wage increases and new positions, to $101.2 million in total.

Coun. Darren Hirsch said when you add positions, they can be in there for a long time, and the community deserves certainty before decisions are made.

About half the positions are new police officers or firefighters, leading one councillor to say the task may be complicated and to not assuage the public with long explanations that aren’t always “black and white.”

“There are a lot of inputs when you put in for these new full-time employees,” said Coun. Robert Dumanowski. “To put it all on one page will be a task. I’m cautious, because the public put nine of us here and they have to have confidence in us, and we need to have confidence in staff to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay.'”

In fire, for example, eight new firefighters would increase platoon size from 16 to 18, where 16 is the nationwide standard to respond to a residential fire. Two additional workers in each of the four platoons would better help cover sick time, training and vacations. That would avoid paying overtime when off-duty workers are called in.

Two years ago, during a call for cross-budget cuts from council, fire administrators suggested cost cuts by having a pool of casual employees to split among platoons.

“(That) has challenges and higher turnover,” said Mastel. “This is the stronger option, and there has been discussion with the union to redeploy staff to avoid overtime.”

Sharps, the head of the council-employee relations committee, said, “Personally, I don’t want an exhausted firefighter coming to my house … but I would like to understand the positions and where they are going. I think that would help for buy-in.”

Among other additions, four more utility workers are needed to staff the new water treatment plant when it is completed later next year.

Three positions, including a Truth and Reconciliation co-ordinator, would bring the public services division, including parks and rec and community development, from 384 positions to 387 next year.

That comes after the division contracted out operations of the Veiner Centre but took on management of Co-op Place, and changed to some on-demand transit routes. All told, the rearrangements saved $1 million in annual operating costs, but didn’t reduce the workforce, said Mastel.

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