Staff reduction new reality

Prince Albert City Hall -- Herald File Photo.

A total of nine City of Prince Albert staff positions will be cut or left vacant as a result of this year’s budget crunch.

City council voted in favour of the decision on Monday, as part of an ongoing effort to trim a $3.5-million shortfall.

Mayor Greg Dionne said it was a difficult decision, but also a necessary one.

“Our biggest expense is staff,” he explained. “When you have to cut, you can’t get around it, so what do you do? You do the best you can, but at the end of the day, if some of those items pick up and we need those staff members, we’ll hire them back.”

Of the nine positions, at least four are already vacant. They include a planning technician, economic development manager and a financial services summer student position. Funding for a term firefighter position in 2018 was also removed, and two firefighter partial vacancies were budgeted as one-time reductions.

Dionne said the plan is to fill all positions in 2019, provided the provincial government follows through on plans to restore funding through the municipal revenue sharing agreement.

“That was their prediction and that’s why we’re putting a lot of faith in the new leader,” he said.

Monday’s decision was not without opposition, especially when it came to the elimination of two planning department positions. The city has 13 total staff in the department, but Dionne said the economic slow down and near completion of major planning projects, like the Cornerstone Development, meant they didn’t need as many employees.

The cuts did not go down well with Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp, who worried the decision was shortsighted.

“Our city could really improve in terms of proactively planning how we want our city to look,” she said in an interview following Monday’s meeting. “To do that, we need appropriate staffing levels. I did not find it justified to be removing two staffing positions from the planning department, among other staffing positions as well.”

Dionne placed most of the blame for Monday’s staff reduction on the provincial government. He said cities are being forced to pay back debt they didn’t create, and added that he didn’t want to download the cost onto citizens in the form of higher taxes. However, he also placed some blame on local unions, who he said are focused on the wrong things.

“I think the most important thing the union should have been doing was focus on keeping jobs,” Dionne said. “The jobs that we did cut today partly lands on their table because (the city) did make them a fair offer not to cut jobs and it was not acceptable, so then city council had no choice but to take the bull by the horns and move ahead.”

The mayor added that it was the union’s job to fight for its members, but with so many recent job losses in the construction and retail industry, just keeping people employed was proving difficult.

CUPE Local 160 and CUPE Local 882 represent more than 300 city workers in Prince Albert, and have been in negotiations with the city for nearly a year.

On Friday, the two locals sent out a joint letter saying they were looking for a wage increase of 1.6 per cent, which would cover the increase in the cost of living. In the letter, both argued that any wage increase would go back into the community through purchasing products and services from local businesses and through property taxes.

Originally, city council had budgeted to freeze all staff wages for 2018, a move that was in line with many provincial ministries, but eventually passed a motion calling for a 1 per cent increase.

When reached on Monday, CUPE staff representative Tony Head called Dionne’s remarks “concerning,” and council’s decision to cut jobs a “quick fix.”

“The mayor’s fair deal amounted to zero per cent and was offered outside of the bargaining process,” Head explained. “That said, the union doesn’t bargain in the media. The mayor doesn’t know this because the mayor doesn’t’ sit at the bargaining table, but the mayor wants to talk about cost savings, and how about all of the contracting out the city does. Contracting out is always more expensive than doing things in house, and cutting jobs, that is a quick fix, and quite frankly, I think a little narrow-sighted, and only leads to more contracting out.”

Head added that working people were being punished for mistakes made by the provincial government, and urged Dionne to focus on his remarks there, and not on the city’s unionized employees.

Prince Albert firefighters are represented by IAFF 510 and not CUPE.

According to the 2018 Budget Fund document, salaries, wages and benefits account for $40,164,650 in spending. That’s roughly two-thirds of the city’s $62,638,950 estimated total expenses. The General Fund does not include revenues and expenses from the Sanitation Fund, Land Fund, Water and Sewer Utility Fund or Airport Fund.

@kerr_jas •