By Doug Hallett
After ending up back where it started following five hours of debate, council told city staff last week to find efficiencies needed to keep Guelph’s 2013 operating budget increase below three per cent.
Council started debate last Wednesday night with a staff proposal that called for a 3.25% increase in the budget.
Hours later, after a few changes made by council that added to or subtracted from the budget, the budget increase still stood at 3.25%. Council hadn’t turned down any of the new city employees proposed to be hired in 2013, although there were some close votes.
Council then unanimously passed a motion setting an “efficiency target” for staff, telling them to find ways next year to cut a further $500,000 from the $185.2-million budget.
This $500,000 cut moved the budget increase down to 2.97% – which means a property tax hike of $97 next year for the average resident with a home valued at $292,000.
“This is exciting. It’s new, and I’m supportive,” Coun. Karl Wettstein had said earlier in the evening when the “efficiency target” motion was first discussed. Council decided to delay a vote on it until the end of the meeting.
“It’s extremely important that we don’t micromanage what efficiencies can be made,” said Coun. Leanne Piper.
City CAO Ann Pappert said staff already found many efficiencies during the process of preparing the 2013 budget. If staff can’t find enough additional efficiencies next year to hit the $500,000 target, they will have to look at service reductions, she told council just before the motion passed.
Coun. Gloria Kovach said the passing of this motion meant she wouldn’t need to propose, as she often does, a string of line-by-line changes in the budget – “a $10,000 change here and $15,000 there,” she said.
Coun. Cam Guthrie wanted to raise the “efficiency target” to $750,000. But no one seconded his proposed amendment, so it wasn’t debated.
Although the rest of the night’s debate had no net effect on the budget’s bottom line, council did made a small number of noteworthy changes.
This included adding $100,000 back into the budget to allow sidewalk snow plowing in front of residences to continue in 2013.
There was little debate, and the decision to keep the sidewalk mini-plows going was almost unanimous.
The $100,000 cost works out to just $2 per household each winter, “which I think is good value,” said Coun. Lise Burcher. “I think it contributes significantly to the well-being of our community to make sure the sidewalks are plowed.”
The only vote against keeping the service came from Piper, who said city residents have a “civic duty to make sure our sidewalks are walkable.”
Derek McCaughan, the city’s executive director of operations and transit services, said three of the 12 comparable municipalities surveyed by city hall provide sidewalk snow plowing.
NO FEE FOR CART EXCHANGE
Council also voted to put $75,000 back into the budget to avoid introducing a $35 delivery and cleaning fee in 2013 for people who want to exchange their waste carts for a different size. The vote was tight on this motion by Coun. June Hofland, which passed 7-6.
Hofland said it would be “premature” to introduce such a fee while the city is still phasing in the cart system, with the final batch of residences not slated to get them until late 2014.
Council decided to refer to issue of a cart-exchange fee to a council committee for further study.
NO CHRISTMAS TREE PICKUP
Perhaps the most noticeable service reduction in the new budget is the elimination of the Christmas tree collection to save $22,000.
City staff have a communications plan for making residents aware of this change, which takes effect this Christmas, council was told.
USER FEE HIKES
The budget includes hikes in user fees totalling $1.9 million, including a 3% increase in recreation user fees. Parking fines will increase by an average of $5, and parking rates will also go up.
On a 7-6 vote, council also decided to reduce city-wide plantings of flowers and shrubs next year by 20%, instead of the 10% recommended by staff. A 10% cut would have saved $25,000 and resulted in the elimination of two student employees from the city’s horticulture program.
The proposed budget unveiled last month called for the full-time equivalent of about 23 new employees to be hired in 2013. Council didn’t turn down any proposed new hires Wednesday, although a few of them ended up being funded from the city’s “strategic initiatives reserve” rather than from tax revenue.
The budget includes the hiring of four new employees to boost the city’s information technology capabilities, in keeping with the city’s new corporate technology plan. This plan aims to provide easier, quicker access to city information, more opportunities for community engagement and open- government principles to enhance transparency and accountability, the city says.
Guthrie proposed saving $244,200 by removing two of the four new IT employees from the 2013 budget. “I keep hearing every position is critical,” observed Guthrie. But his motion lost on an 8-5 vote.
HIRING FREEZE PROPOSED
Near the end of the meeting, Coun. Jim Furfaro proposed that the city implement a hiring freeze in 2013. He said this could save $1.5 million in salaries and benefits in 2013, if all 17 of the city employees eligible to retire next year do leave their jobs.
“It’s a way of asking our corporation to do more with less,” Furfaro said.
Mayor Karen Farbridge said she didn’t welcome a lengthy debate on this sort of motion so late on budget night. She sided with the majority as council voted 7-6 to refer this issue to a council committee for further study, as part of a broader discussion on the city’s staffing levels.
“I don’t support the wording or the intent of the resolution” proposed by Furfaro, Farbridge said, “but I am more than happy to have a conversation.”
CROSSING GUARD PROGRAM
A motion to cut $83,500 from the budget for hiring a coordinator for the adult crossing guard program was defeated 9-4, so a coordinator will be hired.
This new full-time job, which will also include doing some clerical work for the city’s parking and traffic operation, will pay between $53,000 and $58,000 a year, council was told. The cost of pension contributions and other payments the city must make for the new employee will add about 25% to the salary cost, though. The $83,500 line item also includes the cost of a desk and equipment for the new job.
Council also approved spending $59,000 in 2013 to hire six new crossing guards, as well as spare crossing guards to act as fill-ins.
A staff recommendation to spend $85,000 to hire another employee for the city’s communications department survived a challenge from Guthrie, whose motion to cut the position was defeated 7-6. This communications and issues management coordinator will join six employees already in the department.
City hall needs more help with external and internal communication, and especially with “issues management,” Pappert told council.
Coun. Bob Bell was against the new hire. “I think generally speaking we are trying to say too much,” he said. “I’d prefer we do good things and say very little.”
Council already approved the hiring of another new communications employee, working for the city’s water and wastewater departments, when it passed the city’s user-pay budgets this fall. However, the cost of this job will be more than covered by a reduction in what the city has been spending on outside consultants to do communications work for the water and wastewater operation, council was told Wednesday.