Staff Reductions Prompt Debate on Service Levels and Tax Increases
by Colin Smith
A majority of Morinville council members are open to major cuts in the draft 2024 budget to come from town staff cost reductions.
At the regular meeting council meeting Tuesday, Councillor Scott Richardson moved that council defer approval of the proposed 2024 operating budget so that administration could come back to council at its December 12 meeting with the budgetary implications of a $700,000 cut to salaries, wages and benefits and training.
“When looking at the budget and hearing concerns from residents, the big thing that I hear is that the organization is outpacing the population growth,” Richardson said. “So this is just one way that I thought I could get some information back and come up with a solution that works best for the organization.”
In response to a question from Councillor Maurice St. Denis, Chief Administrative Officer Naleen Narayan said that such a cut would likely result in reductions in the services provided by the town.
“We are providing services, and when you take people out of the occasion, there are service level reductions,” he said.
Councillor Stephen Dafoe proposed an amendment to Richardson’s motion, that administration provide budget scenarios including salary, wage and benefit reductions of $200,000, $300,000, $500,000, as well as $700,000.
“That is a tremendously big number,” Dafoe said. ”This still may result in service reductions, as has been said. But at that low end of the spectrum to the high end of the spectrum as a collective we would see what that really looks like.”
The amended motion passed in a 5-2 vote, with Councillors Rebecca Balanko, Maurice St. Denis and Ray White in favour, along with Dafoe and Richardson, while Mayor Simon Boersma and Deputy Mayor Jen Anheliger were opposed.
In expressing her opposition to the motion before the vote, Anheliger pointed to loss of efficiency and morale in the organization resulting from understaffing and high staff turnover, and stated that as a result, the savings realized may not actually be as great as expected.
Dafoe made a further motion to the operating budget motion, that administration find $200,000 in operational savings, emphasizing that this motion was not related to the one targeting staff costs, and might be a replacement for it in whole or in part. That passed with the same 5-2 vote count.
The budget, as proposed, would lead to a tax increase of 7.3%, with the cost for an average home valued at $350,000 rising by $213.08 next year, or $17.76 per month.
With the ratio of residential to non-residential taxes set to go up from 1:12 to 1:1.33, the annual tax on an average business, valued at $650,000, will rise to $1,499.75, $120.81 monthly.
The draft budget calls for net taxation to make up $13,419,306 of total revenue of $28,129,465 for the town in 2024.
Operating expenses are budgeted at $26,505,272, plus $425,121 in net debt principle, for a total of $26,930,393.
Salaries, wages, benefits and training are by far the largest budget expense at a planned cost of $12,490,683 in 2024. This is followed by material goods and utilities at $5,950,344 and contracted and general services at $5,366,783.
Other expenses include $559,096 for the Morinville Community Library next year, unchanged from 2023, and $113,516 for the Morinville Historical Society, up from $110,210 the previous year.
The Morinville Leisure Centre would see increased hours of operation next year from cuts made last year. Originally budgeted at an extra cost of 190,000, the new hours would see approximately $80,000 in savings after a motion from Councillor Maurice St. Denis.
The council vote seeking information about the budgetary implications of staff cost reductions reflects an ongoing aspiration on the part of some council members to minimize tax increases by that route.
At the council’s October 10 meeting, Councillor Ray White made a motion seeking a report from the administration “with any cost savings or staff reorganization that would bring the town in line with similar-sized municipalities.”
“If people could see that we are doing our part as an organization to make us more efficient they might be able to get behind a tax increase a little better,” White said at the time. “Coupled with the fact that looking at the comparisons it just makes no sense to me to see why we have so many people in some positions as we do.”
The motion was defeated after council members heard from Financial Services Manager Travis Nosko that Morinville’s staffing levels are slightly lower than the average among comparable municipalities.
Along with Whyte, Richardson voted in favour of the motion. Opposed were Boersma, Anheliger and St. Denis. Balanko was not present, while Dafoe, who was out of town, was participating electronically but lost his connection before the vote.
At the Nov. 14 meeting, the administration also presented the council with the recommended long-term capital plan and long-term operational plan, but these were not discussed due to uncertainty about the operating budget.