Midland councillors go after staffing requests in budget

·7 min read

Staffing requests we the hot topic during day two of Midland's budget deliberations.

Council members could not bring themselves to approve $278,745 worth of staffing requests. Instead, staff were tasked to take another look at the numbers and limiting that total to $218,000.

The staffing requests were for four full-time positions, apprentice mechanic, manager of engineering, firefighter, and manager of legal and risk services. It was the last one, with a proposed budget of $140,000, that stuck out like a sore thumb for elected officials.

"It doesn't look like a full-time permanent role," said Coun. Cher Cunningham, talking about the position hiring for a law clerk or junior lawyer. "We've got a mess, we have to clean up our documents and we have to use our systems better. I value this but I just don't see this as a full-time role. I see it as a contract role."

Tina Lococo, ​town solicitor/executive director of corporate services, said she understood the request wasn't coming at an optimum time.

"It was demonstrated in some in-camera sessions that there are some long-term issues that need to be rectified," she explained. "It won't occur through a contract or short-term position. The position doesn't just start up initiatives, but it has to maintain those systems, too.

"What you have right now is one in-house lawyer: that's me. I'm responsible for overseeing all the litigation, claims management, questions and concerns from staff and council, and like every lawyer, we have our own areas of expertise and there will always be gaps."

Cunningham asked if it would be possible to fill the position with a junior role, rather than a managerial role.

"To tell you the truth, I would really prefer, and I think the organization requires, the acumen in legal," said Lococo. "A junior clerk will not have the depth of knowledge. The reason being, in part, is that is something that seems to be farmed out a lot and we'd like to build it internally here. It won't be a full-year spend this year and we will likely not pay the top end of the amount."

Cunningham asked if the service could be contracted out.

"For someone junior, you're looking at $250 - $300 an hour," said Lococo. "If you're talking about partnership level, it's easily starting at $500 an hour, and that's with the municipal discount."

Deputy Mayor Mike Ross also caught onto that idea.

"Is there opportunity, Midland has some great retirees, to bring them on part-time?" he said. "I'm not going to support it for $140,000. Right now, we're looking at a 3.7% budget and we're going to have to cut somewhere."

Lococo had an answer for that option, too.

"I don't think having a retired lawyer or someone else a couple days a week is going to assist with building in-house expertise or continuity or anything this position is meant to pull together," she said. "It's not to clean up a few projects or get them off the ground. The person we need is invested in Midland. That's what you see here, constant turnover, change management."

Ross turned to David Denault and said he, and the rest of council, were looking for the CAO's help in reaching a 2.5% municipal tax rate.

At that point, Mayor Stewart Strathearn brought to their attention the categories of council additions and agencies, boards and committee.

Denault agreed.

"I was going to draw your attention to the same," he said. "The alternative is, as council you can consider, changing the level of service that is being offered in some areas. For example, do you want to change how many times you plow a road in Midland, do you want to consider our accessible transit service? A sizeable part of this base budget is to support community initiatives, maybe council could look at that."

Ross said he was struggling to say yes to the staffing requests.

"People are struggling, our community is struggling," he said. "I appreciate what Mr. Denault is saying, but we're not like other communities. We're the highest taxed and lowest income per household. The raise is only making that box bigger. We can always raise taxes, the residents have no choice. We are in a tough bind to keep approving."

Coun. Bill Gordon saw eye-to-eye with his peer.

"We've divested that corporate experience over the years and created an executive director structure to try and flatten the corporation," he said. "The position commands more salary but more work, and even more in a pandemic. What we're asking our staff to do is to help out the community and I'm hearing they're fully invested.

"Maybe, I'd like to see you do this for this year while we're in pandemic," Gordon said to Lococo. "The other option is, perhaps, uncoupling some other responsibilities from you. We're trying to find creative solutions. We're in a pandemic and we're asking everybody to do more with less."

Strathearn then steered the conversation back to budget.

"We're not restructuring the organization," he said. "We're only approving or sending back the request for additional staff scrutiny."

With that, all attention turned to the $76,500 library ask for service enhancement.

Gordon said he wanted to be cautious with the move, lest it be perceived as antagonistic towards the library.

"I have concerns about supporting this ask, not that I don't believe in it, but I want to hold the line this year," he said. "Having said that, this is a low-hanging fruit for us."

Gordon then suggested a solution.

"I just Googled for a similar position across the street at the arts and cultural centre and wondering if you aren't successful in this funding this year, could you split it with them and leverage that for your needs?" he said. "We can visit this next year."

Crystal Bergstrome, chief executive officer and chief librarian for Midland Public Library, said she was understanding of the situation.

"We didn't go into this thinking we would want to split it with someone, but nothing is off the table," she said, adding, "we're always happy to coordinate and share. We don't want to be in a position because we're bullying them for something."

Bergstrome also said just because the titles for the two positions are the same doesn't mean the duties are.

"We're basing (the amount) on the town's grid based on their responsibilities and requirements for the role," she said. "We're open to sharing but we would need to do some contract work to figure it out. If we don't get this, will the library burn to the ground, no.

"We will have to adjust. This is full transparency for council to let them know this is something we need. We've hit a saturation point. If we don't get it this year, we fully understand, but we wanted to make you aware of the needs."

Gordon also asked her about the possibility of sharing such a position with neighbouring libraries.

"It's something we're absolutely game for," Bergstrome said, adding she couldn't speak for the other library boards. "It would take some talks and discussions on how it would work. I'm sure they could benefit from this."

At the end of the discussion, council approved three changes to the motions as they had been presented.

They sent staff back to the table to find savings in its staffing requests and limit it to $218,000. They approved all agencies, boards, and committees funding requests with the exception of the library ask of $76,500. Council also moved the $100,000 for affordable housing, housing, and transitional housing policy and initiatives to the tax-rate stabilization reserve instead of the operating budget.

Final budget deliberations take place today and can be viewed via live stream on the town's YouTube channel.

Mehreen Shahid, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, OrilliaMatters.com