North Cowichan will fill three new positions in the municipality as part of the 2020 budget.
At a special budget meeting on Feb. 11, council decided to hire a procurement coordinator, an assistant fire chief and a new office manager for the RCMP.
The total cost of the new positions per year is $279,500, and will raise the projected tax increase for 2020 from 4.03 per cent to 4.49 per cent.
Council also decided against filling two other positions recommended by staff; a senior social and housing planner and a new legislative services coordinator.
Mayor Al Siebring said there is a perception among many in the public that North Cowichan is “empire building” with the new hirings in recent years, and asked staff how that should be countered.
CAO Ted Swabey said he agrees that local governments grow as populations and the demand for services increase.
“Most of our staff work flat out in operations and we’re severely under-resourced in many areas,” he said.
“If we stop some of our initiatives, like improving water quality and dealing with issues related to the opioid crisis, we could cut back on some staff, but that would be difficult when the public is demanding council respond to a myriad of issues.”
Council had denied the request for a new assistant fire chief at a meeting on Jan. 29 after some councillors expressed concerns about the cost of the position [$112,000 per year].
Staff had recommended the hiring to help deal with the growing number of required fire inspections in the municipality.
But Coun. Tek Manhas asked that the decision be reconsidered.
“We need this position because those living in highly densified buildings want to remain safe, and a new assistant fire chief would help with the fire inspections,” he said.
Siebring said he’s pleased the position was brought back before council for reconsideration as it’s a “critical” role that North Cowichan needs to fill.
The second recommended position that council decided to fill is a new procurement manager, at a cost of approximately $112,000 per year, who will provide advice and expertise to city staff in the development of tender and proposal call processes.
In a staff report, finance director Mark Frame said the municipality currently has no procurement department.
“Every department is currently handling aspects of their individual procurements trying to the best of their abilities and time constraints to meet the requirements laid out in our policy,” he said.
“Similar-sized municipalities generally have between three and four dedicated procurement positions. Procurement is becoming a larger risk to the district. Continuing with procurement partially funded, the risk of not meeting trade obligations and being sued by unsuccessful vendors will increase.”
Coun. Rosalie Sawrie said she sees the benefits of having a person to streamline the procurement process and reduce the workload on other staff.
The final position to be hired is a new office manager at the North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP detachment.
Frame said that upgrading an existing vacant three-day a week position could provide a manager for an additional amount of approximately $47,500.
“The [RCMP’s] administrative support staff is supervised by a single provincial office manager resource,” he said.
“With increasing human resource management demands, financial administration requirements and increasing building issues, the sustainability of one resource effectively managing all these areas is no longer viable. The duties of the current office manager position are unmanageable for a single resource and burnout is a real possibility.”
But Coun. Rob Douglas questioned the costs of all the new hirings.
“How do we deal with a tax increase [in 2020] that’s twice the rate of inflation?” he asked.
“There’s no question to the benefits of these new positions, but we must balance the budget within our means.”
After much discussion, council voted against hiring a senior social and housing planner, and a new legislative services coordinator.
The senior social and housing planner position was intended to help achieve council’s strategic plan priorities in regards to affordable housing, and provide more input into helping manage the ongoing opioid crisis in the Valley.
But with the challenges of providing social housing also being overseen by other jurisdictions in the Valley, including the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s Cowichan Housing Association, many councillors felt that it would be better to confer with them first.
“I’m not sure if [the position] is exactly the right fit for us,” said Coun. Kate Marsh.
“Maybe we should meet with some of these groups to see where the gaps are and determine if this is the right decision.”
The new legislative services coordinator position would have been responsible for preparing council and committee agendas, including coordinating reports, delegations, staff presentations and related assignments, as well as acting as a meeting coordinator with the general public.
But, largely because council disbanded the majority of its standing committees after it was elected, council decided against filling the position at this time.
Frame said other expenses, including contractual wage increases and inflation, are also contributing to the proposed tax increase in North Cowichan for 2020.
He said council’s adoption, along with other local governments and community stakeholders, last year of the Safer Community Plan has also come with costs.
The plan is intended to address crime and public disorder in the Trans Canada Highway corridor that goes through the Valley.
“We’ve hired a new bylaw person and are helping pay for the new safety office [estimated total cost of the year at $150,000],” he said.
“We’re also looking at increased costs in our fire department [$110,000] related to training and paid-on-call services.”
Frame said North Cowichan only paid half the costs of its new senior environmentalist specialist [$112,000 at full time] and chief building inspector [$118,000 at full time] last year as they were hired during the fiscal year, but those positions will be paid in full in 2020.
A lot of additional work and consultations still have to be done over the next few months as the municipality prepares to meet its deadline to have the budget prepared for its first three readings on April 15, so nothing is set in stone at this stage.
The final 2020 budget is scheduled to be adopted as of May 1.