'Not about politics': Steve Crocker says Crown Lands move to west coast will pay off

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The controversial decision to relocate the office that oversees Crown lands from St. John's to Corner Brook is part of a strategy to make the newly created Department of Fisheries and Land Resources more efficient and effective, says Minister Steve Crocker.

Crocker says he has sympathy for the 30 or so employees affected by the decision, and they will be treated with respect and understanding.

"We're going to work with them and their union to make this as less impactful as possible," he said.

But he envisions a department that is much more streamlined and accountable to the taxpayer, and denies claims that the move is being made to prop up the political base of Premier Dwight Ball and other west coast politicians.

"This is not about politics," Crocker said during an interview with CBC News Friday. "This is about efficiency. This is about taking down silos." 

Lives tossed into turmoil

The government announced the move in February as part of a strategy to reduce management jobs and realign some departments.

The Lands Branch will transfer from the Howley Building, a government-owned building on Higgins Line in St. John's, to a leased space in the Herald Building in Corner Brook in early summer.

Crocker stressed that a regional office will remain in St. John's, and anyone applying for Crown land in Eastern Newfoundland will see no change in service.

Some employees with the Lands Branch have been quietly voicing their shock at the decision, saying it has cast their lives into turmoil.

"The employees are stressed beyond belief," the spouse of one Lands Branch employee wrote in an email to CBC News.

Ripple effect

The decision affects about 30 positions, but critics say dozens of people, including spouses, children and other relatives are also impacted.

Many working couples are now having to decide whether one spouse gives up a position in order to make the move, and a downturn in the real estate market is also playing heavily on some as they consider selling their homes.

Affected employees are now having to decide whether to accept the transfer, search for another position in government, or leave the public service altogether.

"The lack of respect this government has for its own employees is disheartening," wrote the spouse.

One former land surveyor said this week he expects about half the employees will actually make the move.

Employees to be cross-trained

Crocker said it's impossible to say what the move will cost until it's clear how many employees will be relocating.

But he said there are many benefits.

For example, he said the three mapping divisions currently located in Corner Brook and the one located in St. John's will be consolidated under the one roof.

He said there are also plans to cross-train department employees.

"There are many times in this department where three trucks [are] going down the same road doing three different pieces of work. This department will eliminate a lot of that because now we will have our employees cross-trained and doing functions that will actually make the delivery of services coming out of this department much more efficient," he said.

Crocker also defended the decision to move out of a government-owned building and into leased space.

"I can assure you that as a department, if you come back and check with me in six months from now, in Corner Brook this department will have less leased space than it has today," he said.