By Doug Hallett
Overstaffing at city hall and overpaying of city employees is part of the reason property taxes are going up in Guelph, two delegations charged at a meeting held to get public input into the city’s 2013 operating budget.
The charges were challenged by some councillors and by the city’s top human resources official at Thursday’s meeting, which saw 25 delegations address council on a wide variety of concerns about the budget.
Council is set to finalize the 2013 budget, which includes hiring the full-time equivalent of about 23 additional employees for city departments, this week.
Sue Ricketts, the local spokesperson for an Ontario group called Fair Pensions for All, said the city’s workforce grew quickly between 2002 and 2011. She said the Consumer Price Index and Guelph’s population both grew by about 2% a year during that period, while the number of full-time city workers grew by a total of 44% – from 1,042 employees in 2002 to 1,502 in 2011.
In the same period, Ricketts said, the city’s part-time workforce grew by 60% from 428 to 684, and its seasonal workforce increased by 137% from 80 to 190.
“How did the city manage with such a small number of employees per capita in 2002? Or why have they increased so far above the 2% growth rate of population and housing?” she asked.
Total wages and benefits paid to city employees rose from $65 million in 2002 to $155 million in 2011, with benefit costs rising considerably faster than wages, said Ricketts, who has been campaigning this year against what she has called “gold-plated” pension plans for municipal employees.
Ricketts, who was accompanied by Fair Pensions for All executive director Bill Tufts, charged that fast-rising compensation costs at city hall are leading to higher taxes and user fees in Guelph.
Milton Burns, a retired city resident, also took aim at the city’s growing payroll. “The numbers do not lie,” he told council. “The truth is that Guelph is overstaffed” and its workers “are overpaid and receive overly generous benefits,” he charged.
Ricketts and Tufts were challenged by some council members.
Coun. Todd Dennis said the numbers they provided needed context, including the downloading of services that the city now handles.
Tufts agreed that taking on the ambulance service from a private operator contributed to the rise in the number of city employees since 2002. He also said Ontario cities should expect more downloading from a deficit-plagued provincial government that’s in a “desperate financial crisis.”
Coun. Maggie Laidlaw suggested private-sector workers should organize to fight for more attractive wages and benefits, rather than the city joining “a race to the bottom.”
Tufts replied that public sector workers don’t have to contend with market pressures as private-sector workers do.
Public-sector pension costs are driven by the province, not by municipalities, said Coun. Karl Wettstein. “The staff number thing (at Guelph city hall) is a bit of a red herring . . . a lot of that is downloading,” he said.
Mayor Karen Farbridge questioned the source of the numbers provided by Ricketts and Tufts.
The city’s human resources department puts out an annual report that “does the kind of tracking you are suggesting that we need,” Farbridge said.
Coun. Leanne Piper said she hoped Mark Amorosi, the city’s executive director of corporate and human resources, would pull together information on the subject before council meets to debate and approve the budget on Dec. 5. “A lot of it seemed pretty off to me,” Piper said, referring to the numbers presented by Ricketts. “I think we need clarity,” she said
In an interview after the meeting, Amorosi said that “rising compensation is a growing concern,” but “there is a lot of misinformation out there.”
Municipalities can’t unilaterally make changes in the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, which covers municipal workers, he said.
Aside from taking over the ambulance service, Amorosi said, reasons for the growth of city hall’s workforce since 2002 include hiring more transit workers for the more frequent buses sought by Guelphites and hiring more firefighters for new fire halls, including the emergency services facility on Clair Road. Another factor, he said, was the city taking over the Sleeman Centre and its workforce after a private-sector operator of the downtown arena left town.
“The other reality is that the city has been growing,” which requires more workers to plow roads, pick up garbage and provide other services, he told the Trib.
“Compensation is a concern, and we do take steps,” he said, noting that Guelph and other cities have been advocating for changes to a provincial arbitration system that has led to sizable wage hikes for firefighters and police.
City council “has been very responsible in managing costs,” Amorosi said, citing as proof the upgraded credit rating the city received this year.
While reaffirming Guelph’s current “AA” credit rating, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services upgraded the city’s outlook from “stable” to “positive.”
Amorosi also said there are problems in comparing private-sector compensation with that received by municipal employees. There are elements to private-sector compensation, “especially at the more senior level,” that aren’t available to their public-sector counterparts, Amorosi said.
In the private sector there are “stock options, annual bonuses – it just goes on,” he said.