Editorial: Too much work or too many workers

The proposed 2012 Morinville Budget identifies $5.2 million in staff wages and another $1.3 million in contract services for a total of $6.5 million. If we break that down it represents $764.34 for each man, woman and child who currently live in Morinville. But not all residents are rate payers. According to Andy Isbister, Morinville’s chief financial officer, there are 3,100 residential and 133 commercial / industrial properties on the tax rolls. Breaking our $6.5 million down by tax payer, we see an average of $2,010.53 each just to finance wages and contract services for next year.

As everyone (or hopefully everyone) is well aware, wages are not the only expenditure the Town of Morinville has. Fortunately, taxes are not the only source of revenue or we’d all be looking at some steep tax bills in spring. But the reality is whether it is provincial or federal grant money, development permits, photo radar tickets or those seemingly rarely-dispensed bylaw tickets for overgrown weeds and trailers parked in the streets, Morinvillians fund those other sources of revenue directly or indirectly. It therefore makes sense to take interest in how the money is spent.

In our interview with those who attended Monday night’s budget open house, Morinville resident Linda Lyons indicated she was concerned with staffing. So too was Paul O’Dea. For Mrs. Lyons there was concern as to what the wages will look like when all 11 of the positions approved in 2011 are recruited and employed. For Mr. O’Dea there was the belief that perhaps Morinville needs to be looking at some independent outside help to determine if we really need all the positions we have throughout the organization. Is Morinville spending too much on staffing as Mrs. Lyons wonders? Is Morinville overgrown in staff compared to other municipalities as Mr. O’Dea wonders?

The simple fact of the matter is Mr. O’Dea does not know. Mrs. Lyons does not know. We do not know. But what we all know is the number just doesn’t seem right.

Morinville is an organization. At least that is what employees and council refer to it as. And any organization rises and falls on the strength of its people. The organization that is Morinville has some good people. In the business world an organization with an inferior product can survive with the right people to convince the world that the product has value. But unless the product is one people cannot live without, the organization cannot survive with the wrong people. Morinville has some great employees and few would question this, but the real question we need to be asking is does Morinville have too much work or too many workers.

An 11 per cent growth in population requires some growth in the organization and its staff. Few would argue that. But caution must be taken to prevent the organization from growing to the point where the number of employees, the height of the hierarchy, the number of layers in the decision-making process becomes quick-drying cement halting the cogs of municipal momentum.

Having resided in this community for the past decade, I have the perception that although the wheels of traffic spin increasingly faster, the wheels of government are turning increasingly slower.

Some great work has been done in identifying Morinville’s direction over the next quarter of century. Some great work is currently being done to that end and will continue to be done to that end in the future. However, there is a clear perception among many in this community that the growth in the organization that is Morinville has not carried with it a growth in the level of service. They say many hands make for light work and yet business people seem to wait longer and longer for answers on licencing and development permits – or so they tell us. Decisions small and large seem to take longer and longer with the more staff Morinville adds to the payroll.

We have seen Councillor Gordon Boddez question the St. Jean Baptiste Festival Committee’s request for $40,000 without seeing the value for the dollar. Good for him. Residents now want to see what value for the dollar we are getting for the $5.2 million in wages and $1.3 million in contract services we are spending. Seems a lot of us are asking that question and others.

We applaud Morinville for changing up its budget process this year to allow Linda Lyons, Paul O’Dea and the rest of us an opportunity to come and see how money is to be spent and to ask why. But it is meaningless if we do not ask questions or tell them how we feel when we get the answers.

You have one more chance to be heard this week. That chance is Wednesday night from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Morinville Community Cultural Centre. You don’t have to get up in front of anyone. You can chat to councillors and administration one-on-one whilst drinking a cup of coffee and nibbling on a large cookie that we hope was purchased from a local source. It is said countries, provinces and municipalities get the government they deserve. The same is true of budgets. Will you watch yet another mindless reality TV program or will you take time to ask where your money is going?

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2 Comments

  1. You are so right on with this editorial, Stephen. Once again I must applaud your sagacity!

    The only problem is: Why do we STILL get no answers to those questions we DO ask??

    A case in point – I think it was back in January when I participated in the open houses wherin our grand Municipal Sustainability Plan was being discussed. I asked the then-CAO what the total pricetag of this process (including what was being paid to that outside company which was supposedly “guiding” our efforts, town employee wages with respect to this one project, printing costs and any and all other extraneous expenses) was going to be to the Morinville tax payer. She replied that she didn’t exactly know, but that she would find out and let me know. You guessed it – I’M STILL WAITING! So, I’m now asking the same question of Mr. Isbister. Andy, your answer please…

    Many residents have asked “where’s the money going?” Unfortunately, we never seem to get a satisfactory answer… wonder why that is??

    Elsewhere in this edition, Mr. Brent Henry has submitted an extremely good letter outlining his concerns on salaries and reserves… and he’s absolutely correct… and we should ALL be equally concerned!

    One final point: it is my understanding that not all our councillors were present at the first open house. Why not? It is NOT acceptable for ANY of these people to be absent from these types of efforts. They want to take our money, then they had best be present to answer our questions. I am thoroughly disgusted that ANY of these folks decided not to attend. On second thought, why should they attend, if they know that they’ll be taking no cognisance of our questions, concerns or complaints, when it comes to third reading of this budget.

  2. Thanks for the comments regarding my letter. While I, too, didn’t get all the answers I was looking for, I at least felt that I was heard.

    First, I want to commend the Town for the open forum. As the Acting CAO said, they wanted to be open and transparent. By having the open houses, I think they achieved that. It is participation such as this that should help guide the Town Council in putting together a budget that gives people [what they] want and expect from their Town Council.

    I went to the open house last night and stayed a lot longer than I thought I would. I had a very good converstation with Councillor Holmes, as well as our Director of Corporate Services and the Acting CAO, about several budget points, including salaries and reserves that I mentioned in my letter.

    As a financial manager, I know that you have to have a thick skin whenever you present numbers to people because, invariably, they will ask questions that you don’t have immediate answers to. Some of these questions are a result of the manner in which the numbers are presented so the average person can follow them, others are because of numbers that were missing. That is expected. However, my hope is that after receiving all the questions last night the Town administration and Council will spend some time answering those questions. How about setting giving space on the Town web site to show the questions and Town’s answers?

    One thing that really did encourage me as a taxpayer was that at least a couple of the Council and Town staff were taking notes. For example, Counciller Holmes was asked a question asked about Town plans. As plans have a 2-3 shelf life at best, if the Town does not have the funds or infrastructure to act on the plan in that time, what is the point of paying $75,000 to draw one up? We didn’t question the need for the plan, only the timing. As well, if the Town doesn’t have the capacity to do all the projects listed in the budget, what is the point of showing them all? I know that Councillor Holmes wrote the points down, so I expect that these questions will be asked and (hopefully) adequately addressed before the third and final reading of the budget.

    Finally, while the crowd was relatively small, it was a start. Everyone has some financial knowledge – at least one person I met was an accountant and others had worked in the Provincial or Federal government managing budgets – but as taxpayers we all have a vested interest. We need to show up at these meetings or write the Town to help ensure that the Council and admin staff are spending the money that we taxpayers work hard to earn in a responsible, effective and sustainable manner.

    If the questions are answered and the Council addresses the concerns that were raised, I think we will be quite happy with the end result. If not, when is the next election date?

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