Back in June, Woodlands County Administration was asked by their Council for more details on a wage reduction for Senior Administrators that took place in 2020. In the first meeting of July, Council heard back on those details. The financial report featured the audited 2020 financial statements and compared 2020 with 2019.
Councillor Ron Govenlock, the prominent voice asking for more details in June, spoke first. Upon dissecting the financial report, he questioned how Administration saved $75,000 between 2019 and 2020. Director of Corporate Services Alicia Bourbeau explained. "Councillor Govenlock refers to the Administration line of $1,132,440 in 2020 to the $1,207,911 in 2019. We did the position elimination in 2019, and some of those positions were in the Corporate Services department. There were two positions eliminated, and they were not fully replaced, so that is a good portion of the savings. A portion of that $75,000 is also the wage reduction for Senior Administration."
Councillor Govenlock felt the ten percent cut for Senior Administration was "the unknown." He asked CAO Gordon Frank why the ten percent, as a voluntary wage reduction rollback, occurred and asked who decided it. "The decision on the voluntary rollback was my decision regarding my wage only because we have an employment contract. Council would've had to make a motion to do that, and it would've had to be agreed to by both parties as per the employment agreement. The decision for the rest of the staff was in consultation with senior management at the time in 2020 when the pandemic was first being discovered. Governments were scrambling on how to deal with this pandemic, and we had to put certain procedures in place to make sure that staff were able to work from home," explained CAO Frank.
Councillor Govenlock continued his line of questioning. "On that basis, you are saying that the voluntary ten percent was only applied to the CAO and took place for eleven weeks. Who decided to reinstate it and go back to full salary? Who knew about it?" CAO Frank responded, "Council was made aware of it, and it was my decision to bring back staff to full, including myself."
Councillor Dave Kusch joined the conversation. "Just for clarification, when you guys took the ten percent rollback, it was just while you guys were working from home. Am I right about that?" CAO Frank said that it was for working at home the first time around. "Remember, we also came back into the office and then again, there were decisions in the pandemic to have half the individuals work from home and half the staff working here to avoid a breakout in the event there was one."
Councillor Govenlock got back on the mic. "My understanding is that we only returned to normal as of a week ago. The gates at the county office were locked to public access, and staff were not working out of the office. They were working from home. I don't know who made the decision, other than Mr. Frank saying he made it. Council wasn't involved, and I checked with another member of Council who was also unaware that the change had occurred. To me, it's a matter of misinformation that I'm not comfortable with. As an elected representative, I like to be able to believe that I have the trust and the respect of the community. When you put out a statement that council has taken a ten percent cut and Administration has taken a ten percent cut, and all of a sudden that secretly gets reinstated, I'm not comfortable with that."
He added that he wanted more details and felt that what was provided wasn't enough. "I can't believe that for Protective Services in 2019, we spent $721,749 on two staff. Is that an accurate number that we saved $373,343 in one year by going to contracts, simply based on wages of two staff," queried Councillor Govenlock?
"Protective Services is more than just the bylaw services that we moved to contracting out. It also includes fire. There was less volume of fire in 2020, mostly because the practices were not ongoing because of the pandemic when we were not gathering people into groups," explained Bourbeau. She also said that there were fewer fire calls in 2020, which would account for savings. "It's not just moving to contracted services that saved that money, though that did save a substantial amount of money. It also includes the fire departments."
Councillor Govenlock said that though he appreciated the work put into the report, he didn't feel it correctly outlined the financial reality. "For the purposes of trying to send a message to the public that we are saving a million dollars based on a comparison between 2019 expenditures and 2020, 2020 was an exceptional year as 2021 is going to be because of COVID. How can we accurately reflect what actual costs were reduced as a result of COVID and what was achieved due to cost reduction planning to reduce staff and redundancy within the organization? There are no specifics, and the details are lacking."
Mayor John Burrows, speaking after the meeting, said that he felt the current Administration had been making a difference. "They've been brutally honest with us about our finances and where we were in the third quarter of 2019 when the bomb dropped on us. We were able, as a Council, to come up with a plan as to how we were going to deal with that. Administration then went through an organizational review, and they cut full-time positions."
He added that further reductions had helped significantly. "We carved 15 percent from the 2019 budget, and we continued at that level through not only 2020 but now through 2021. We are very careful with expenditures. Administration came in with a surplus this year, and that's going into reserves so that we have money to do projects that need to be done."
Serena Lapointe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Whitecourt Press