Staff residency policy voted down by city council

Prince Albert's new city council gets sworn in on Monday, Nov. 15. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Prince Albert’s city council voted down a proposal that would require non-unionized employees to live inside city limits.

The proposed policy would only apply to new hires and had a clause allowing the city manager to make exceptions. While the policy passed by a 7-2 margin when it came to council’s executive committee meeting, it failed by a narrow 5-4 vote Tuesday, with councillors citing everything from the policy itself to its overly broad scope to a need to build community unity as reasons to turn it down.

One of the biggest proponents of the policy has been Mayor Greg Dionne. He said 65 employees would be affected by the proposal, but added that they are some of the highest earners on the city’s payroll.

“We have to grow our tax base,” Dionne said.

“If we want to keep taxes low, we increase our population our commercial businesses and other businesses. If we allow people to continue to not live in our city who are employed by us, the rest of the people are going to have to pay the taxes.”

He pointed out that non-city residents get to enjoy city infrastructure while the tax burden falls on city residents alone. he said he felt city staff should contribute to the solution, not the problem.

Dionne added that he would like to see a similar policy brought forward to the board of police commissioners, and the topic of residency included in collective bargaining.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable,” he said.

“I’m very proud to be the mayor of p.A. If I were an employee, I wouldn’t think about living outside of the city. If you’re going to apply to  a job in the city, you’re expected to live in the city of p.A.”

As passionately as Dionne argued for the policy, other councillors argued against it.

Among the loudest critics during the entire discussion, not just during Tuesday’s meeting, was Ward 2 Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp.

‘As a city, we want to hire the best, most qualified applicants to be doing the work,” she said.

“I don’t see the value in restricting that in any of our out-of-scope positions to people that would be living within the city.”

Lennox-Zepp said that decision-makers like elected politicians are expected to live within the city, but that city staff doesn’t make the decisions, but rather provides advice and serves residents, which can be done no matter where they live. She also expressed concern that the residency policy could make it harder to hire diverse individuals, such as Indigenous people who may choose to live in a First Nations community.

For others, like Ward 7 Coun. Dawn Kilmer, Prince Albert is an area that doesn’t end at the city limits. She said she didn’t believe the policy was necessary, nor would it “achieve the goal of establishing stronger relations between employees, residents and the community in which they work.”

Ward 3 Coun. Tony Head, who has also long opposed the policy, put it into stronger words.

He dismissed the argument that the policy would make a measurable impact on the property tax burden.

He called the policy “unreasonable, unnecessary and quite frankly unjust.”

Just as passionate, though, was Ward 4 Coun. Don Cody.

He insinuated that some non-unionized city employees live as far away as Moose Jaw or Saskatoon — which he said can’t be considered parts of Prince Albert’s community.

Other comments were made about city employees living in Melfort, or presenting to council from a home in Alberta.

“For heaven’s sake is that proper?” he asked.

“That’s not proper at all. That’s got nothing to do with community. It’s got to do with the fact that they don’t want to live here but they want to work here because we pay them well and treat them well. We want them here. We like them. But at the same time, they don’t like us. They want to live elsewhere. It isn’t right. Anyone living in Moose jaw should have no right to work in Prince Albert. Anyone in Saskatoon shoudln’t have any right to work in Prince Albert either.”

Ward 8 Coun. Ted Zurakowsi agreed that city workers shouldn’t be living in Moose Jaw. But he disagreed that the policy, as written, was the solution to that.

‘What we have in front of us today is a potential too that lacks a little sophistication, lacks a few nuances. What I would like to see us do is keep chewing on it until we get it right,” he said.

“Perhaps this policy lacks a little bit of creativity to allow some flexibility with our neighbouring RMs.”

Dionne, who rejoined the conversation, said the issue had been chewed on long enough. He pointed to the clause in the policy allowing the city manager to grant exemptions if someone, for instance, lives with their spouse outside the city, or lives on a nearby First Nations community.

“If we find that star employee, the city manager has the right to approve that,” he said.

“If you think that this golden, shiny employee is going to appear, then it will be up to the city manager whether that position is valued enough.”

Dionne agreed the policy wasn’t perfect, but said it should be passed first and then fixed later.

“It’s like every other thing we’ve done,” he said.

“We’ve passed it, then we’ve massaged and changed it.”

The other councillor in full support was Charlene Miller. She pointed out that firefighters have to live a certain distance from the fire station, and the city manager within a few minutes of city hall.

She likened it to someone working at a car dealership – for example, she said, if your job is to sell Fords, you drive a Ford.

Only one councillor seemed to be on the fence about the policy.

Ward 6 Coun. Blake Edwards admitted Tuesday that he was “waffling” on the policy.

He expressed concerns that people, who for instance, live near the city on an acreage or at the lake who have considerable knowledge or skills wouldn’t apply because they wouldn’t want to move away from the place they’ve called home for years.

He called, instead, for an incentive to attract city employees to live within city boundaries.

Dionne interrupted “$110,000 a year is the incentive.”

Edwards responded that well-paying jobs are available “in many places, not just the corporation of the City of Prince Albert.”

Ultimately, the policy failed, with five councillors — Edwards, Head, Lennox-Zepp, Kilmer and Zurakowski voting against it.

While Dionne was frustrated with the way the vote went, he said he will respect the view of the majority and would not push the issue any further.

The other residency debate set to be heard Tuesday was a motion by Lennox-Zepp that would restrict applications to the city’s planning and development and community services committees to city residents.

That motion died on the order paper after no one came forward to second it.