A rookie councillor questioned the City of Red Deer staffing levels after hearing citizen concerns on the campaign trail during the first day of debating the 2014 municipal operating budget on Thursday.
Coun. Tanya Handley questioned the $3.7 million item allocated for increased to staff salaries and benefits and the number of staff.
Handley said the root of her questioning comes from what she heard from residents while campaigning and information from the Red Deer Tax Payers’ Association.
“There’s perception out in the community about the percentage of growth in our staff of (1,400) and just 11 years ago the number was 823,” said Handley.
She said the staff growth compared to the population growth with inflation seems quite exponential.
Fourth-term Coun. Lynne Mulder said this issue comes up every year during budget time. Mulder said this may be an issue that the city should look at communicating better to the public the reasoning behind the staffing levels.
“I think we’re doing well,” said Mulder. “I think 40 per cent is to be envied by any municipality.”
Coun. Dianne Wyntjes said it is interesting to look at the pay study information. She said the city provides competitive wages and the city should never chastize itself for having good standards.
“Seeing how our city has grown, if you see how our city was 10 years ago, it is a lot different than it was 10 years ago. We are in the operation of providing service and responding to our citizens’ needs,” Wyntjes said.
Coun. Lawrence Lee said taking staffing into context of the entire operating budget it may give better light to the bigger picture as not really being a significant number of dollars over the base amount.
Other councillors weighed in, saying as the city grows and builds new facilities, more staff are required to provide the new services.
Staffing accounts for 40 per cent of the municipal budget.
City manager Craig Curtis said the increases in staff have a lot to do with changes in service. He said there are some services that have been contracted out and some have been brought in-house including legal and planning services because it was more efficient.
The figure is slightly higher this year because of the unsettled firefighter union contracts. The figure has built in provisions is expected to diminish when the contracts are settled.
Some concerns were raised over another Ipsos Reid study to the tune of $14,000 and an additional $35,000 to hire a consultant as part of the Dialogue Charter to help improve engagement between the city and the public.
Coun. Ken Johnston said a budget is always about value for money and a service level.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a big number or a small number,” said Johnston. “It has to fit into the larger vision of the city. When we bring up things like the engagement piece, small number but it has huge implications for the direction that the city is going in. (This) means we are committed to better public engagement and better public awareness . . . A small amount of money, but a big vision. It gauges the temperature of council when you bring that kind of issue up.”
Johnston said the staff and the councillors live and breath the community.
“We already do one survey,” said Johnston. “Really what is it going to tell us? We’re probably going to get back what we know already.”
Lee raised concerns about using dollars effectively on items like the Dialogue Charter without having all the pieces of the puzzle. The $35,000 line item will be reviewed again after a council workshop and approval of the terms of reference.
Debate on the proposed $305-million operating budget with a projected 3.98 per cent tax increase continues today. The first item on the agenda is the snow and ice funding requests.