This is the Life: No simple solutions with Town of Creston staff

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When I heard Summerland mayor Janet Perrino interviewed on CBC Radio a few weeks ago, I had different questions than the person she was talking to. I rarely think that the easy answers that she was providing tell the whole story.

The story revolved around a recent decision by Summerland’s city council to cut six employees from its payroll. Municipal administrator Tom Day was reported in other sources as saying factors for the decision included the community’s slow growth rate in recent years, low reserve funds and a lack of public infrastructure projects. Council had voted not to fill three vacancies and some positions were eliminated.

Not surprisingly, the news story got the attention of many in this community and, no doubt, others around the province. After all, the “too much tax” mantra has been repeated ad nauseum since the Reagan era. There doesn’t seem to have been an equivalent reduction in the demand for services, though.

Curious about how Creston compares to Summerland, I did some checking. The Okanagan community, only a few minutes’ drive north of Penticton, has a population of just over 11,000, making it about double that of the town of Creston.

After staff reductions, Day said Summerland will have 13 management and exempt employees, 63 full-time employees, two temporary full-time employees and 10 part-time employees. That is a payroll of 88 and at least 80 full-time equivalents.

In Creston, as of last week, 34 full-time staff were on the payroll. It includes 10 management positions, a victim assistance employee (70 per cent of the costs coming from the province) and 22 union members. In addition, one person at town hall is hired on a term position. Creston’s town council is in the midst of 2014-15 budget discussions and these numbers do not reflect any potential changes that could arise.

The most notable difference in the Summerland reductions was reducing management and union-exempt employees from 17 to 13. It’s easy to fall in to a trap of simply arguing that Creston is management top-heavy. Our ratio of total staff to population is approximately equivalent to that in Summerland, but 13 management positions there compared to 10 in Creston looks out of whack, doesn’t it?

The fact, though, is that while Summerland has double the number of people to provide services for, it very likely doesn’t provide a greater number of services. Departments such as public works, building services, engineering, planning fire protection and waste water treatment, for instance, are pretty standard needs for municipalities of any size.

Keep in mind that municipalities really do operate under the thumb of the provincial government. Legislation restricts the ways in how municipalities can function. When local government passes a bylaw, for instance, it cannot be enacted until the province approves. A large part of a municipal manager’s workload is reporting to the provincial government and ensuring that the town or city operates within the myriad of regulations laid out by senior governments.

Creston, like most smaller communities, I would guess, requires that some managers carry out multiple duties. Town manager Lou Varela, for instance, is also a planner, work previously done by a member of the management team, who was not replaced when he left. The municipal services co-ordinator wears several hats.

One consideration for the ability of Summerland to reduce management numbers comes in Day’s statement that the town has “a lack of infrastructure projects.” It is entirely possible that some positions were created to oversee projects that are now completed, making their positions redundant.

It is impossible to compare taxpayer expectations for services in the two communities. But we do know that we live in a town that ranks among the province’s lowest when it comes to family incomes and that our population is elderly compared with other communities. It is quite possible that the combination results in more demand for local services.

At the outset, I alluded to questions that weren’t answered in Mayor Perrino’s interview. Some services previously provided by management might be moved off the employee payroll and onto the expense sheet for consultants. So, when Perrino and Day speak about savings of about $500,000 a year in payroll costs, they aren’t acknowledging that the city could see a jump in consulting costs. For instance, it is entirely possible for a small community to function without an engineer on the payroll. The choice to have one on staff comes down to an analysis of whether it is more cost effective to hire one or to contract out engineering services.

Eliminating a position does not guarantee savings for the taxpayer. And it likely takes a few years to determine whether the decision was fiscally responsible.

Is the Town of Creston overstaffed? That isn’t for me to decide because I am not in a position to assess the taxpayers’ demand for services, nor to judge whether savings could be made by contracting out some work. But I do believe that the current town council members have not seemed to be free spenders, in my observation, and that they are continually trying to balance taxpayer’s wants and needs with their ability to pay. I would expect them to be interested in Summerland’s announcement and I don’t doubt for a moment that they want all the information available before deciding if it has application to our own community.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.