By Trevor Busch
Recommendations calling for a radical reorganization of town administration as well as contracting out municipal services like grass cutting and tree pruning figure prominently in a new Organizational Review prepared for the Town of Taber.
According to administration’s back-ground to the review, early in 2020 through conversations with CAO Cory Armfelt council recognized the financial benefit that undertaking an Organizational Review could have on municipal operations.
“Essentially, past administrative leadership had made decisions regarding operating responsibilities and organizational structure to find short term benefits at the expense of long term expenses,” reads a statement from administration in town council’s Oct. 13 agenda. “The intent of the review would be to enlighten how and why certain municipal processes are done, and cost saving options to be explored for the future benefit of taxpayers within the municipality.”
Consultants interviewed each member of council and the management team, and input was sought from an anonymous online survey. Subsequent to the information gathering phase, the results were examined for the purpose of creating a list of recommendations which either benefit the municipality via efficiencies or direct cost savings.
These recommendations were proposed to be endorsed by council and then actioned by Armfelt to “decrease administrative costs and find administrative efficiencies with long term financial savings in mind.”
“The most significant opportunity for cost reduction comes from the proposal to reorient the reporting structure to the CAO,” continued administration in their background. “In its current form the reporting structure is overly expensive, inefficient and requires day to day management of administrative staff by the CAO.
There are currently seven direct reports to the CAO making up the senior management team. The review calls for a restructuring of the hierarchy to decrease the direct reports to a total of four who would be charged with managing the day-to-day and week-to-week affairs of the Town.”
The review, prepared by Transitional Solutions Inc. (TSI), cost the town $39,579.05. According to administration, actionable items are poised to save over $100,000 year-over-year operationally with an equal savings achievable from a capital perspective. TSI analysts compared the Town of Taber to five other like-sized municipalities, including Fort Saskatchewan, Town of Canmore, City of Brooks, Town of Strathmore, and Town of Innisfail.
Some of the recommendations for town council included increasing property taxes annually to match inflation, that all council members receive the same information from the CAO (as per Sec. 153.1 of the MGA) and that individual meetings with the CAO be discontinued, and utilize a third party to prepare a revised performance appraisal format for the CAO.
“While we understand 2020 and likely 2021 will be years where residents will be struggling due to COVID-19, it is important that the Town either reduces the service levels to the Town or increases taxes to a rate at least equal to inflation,” states the report.
“If the linear assessment changes being proposed by the province impact the Town’s budget, it may be in the best interest of the Town to engage their tax payers to assess whether there are areas stakeholders would be willing to see a decreased service level rather than an increase in their taxes. By engaging the public, you include them in the conversation, you educate them on the current realities being faced by council and administration due to economic circumstances and you avoid potential backlash if and when council does have to reduce some service levels.”
“TSI understands there are many instances where one or more councillors meet with the CAO outside of Council Chambers. This is against the intent of Section 153.1 of the MGA and as such is important that this is addressed. Any substantive conversations between councillors, including the mayor, and the CAO should then be summarized and then shared with the rest of council.”
One key recommendation targets an administrative review of the number of matters that are taken to council in camera (closed session) as “the current number seems excessive.”
“Trust in council is paramount in creating a positive culture in a community. In our observations, it seems council has gone in camera many times (recently) and this can create distrust among residents and staff.”
Under staff and organization, the review recommends that a position of executive assistant to the CAO be created, that only directors or “subject matter experts” attend council meetings and only for the portion of the meeting where their expertise is needed, and that administrative support to the Taber Municipal Police Commission be contracted out to a third party so the commission is totally separated from Town administration.
“Right from the top at the position of CAO, we discovered a need for further support to take some of the more administrative tasks off the plate of the CAO. Staff see the CAO’s office as an open door when many of the questions and requests could be dealt with outside of the CAO’s office. While we believe the relationship between the CAO and the staff is important, we also believe that the CAO has much larger issues and topics in which to focus and as such believe that the addition of an executive assistant to the CAO could take a lot of that load off the CAO.”
Key recommendations suggest that all non-union salaries be frozen for 2021 at the 2020 level and that there be no further movement within the grids until the Management Personnel Employment and Benefits Terms is updated and approved by council, and that “during negotiations, any increased cost of employee benefits be paid by the employees.”
“Based on the current economic conditions, it is prudent for the Town to review their benefits and how they line up with the salary surveys done within the province. Over a couple decades, the Town has seen an increase in the percentage of benefits of the salary going from 15 per cent of the salary to 22 per cent of the salary. The Town needs to do a review of their Management Employee Benefits Policy and the process by which people are escalated in their grids prior to any further increases in compensation. The policy needs to change to give the CAO final approval on any movement within the grid.”
For operations, the review suggests that consideration be given for some staff to work from home at least a couple of days each week, that administration be directed to explore the opportunity to collaborate with the M.D. of Taber for the provision of fire services, and that council review revenue generation through franchise fees (Fortis and Atco).
“Over the last five years, TSI has been involved in countless fire service reviews, fire master plans and emergency management planning for municipalities around the province. What seems to be the biggest trend, and which provides the lowest cost and most functional system is that of a regional fire service. While we understand there has been some work done on this in the past and some history to overcome, we strongly suggest reigniting these conversations with the MD of Taber to see if there is interest with a proper feasibility study undertaken.”
“The Town of Taber as with all municipalities across the province, can charge a franchise fee with a maximum amount allowed by law. Council recently rolled back these franchise fees which may provide a significant savings to large industrial users, however it puts more burden on residents who pay property taxes. A franchise fee helps reduce this burden by ensuring those who do not pay property taxes pay their fair share of these fees.”
Other recommendations argue further consideration needs to be given to contracting out grass cutting, as “depending on grants to fund a department can be dangerous” and that the responsibility for grass cutting, tree pruning and weed control be consolidated under one department, probably Recreation. The review also recommends that the town contract out proactive tree pruning commencing in 2021.
“While we understand that the Town currently receives STEP grantfunding for their grass cutting summer staff, depending on grants to fund a program can be risky. As we have seen in the past, grants come and go and with the current economic situation all governments are looking for areas to cut. TSI believes that the Town should monitor this grant program, and should the grants change or cease to exist that consideration should be given to contracting out the grass cutting.”
Displayed in a flow chart, the review recommended that functional organization under the CAO include an executive assistant, and that four directors be responsible for various service areas including Legislative Services (legislative services, communication, cemetery administration), Corporate Services (finance, human resources, IT, procurement, fleet management), Community and Protective Services (fire, recreation, parks and green spaces, cemetery maintenance) and Development, Engineering and Public Works (planning and development, public works, economic development, cemetery burials).
“This gives the municipality some place to bounce back to. I’m not convinced that we have hit rock bottom with what we’re looking at with 2021,” said CAO Cory Armfelt. “I think at the end of 2021 we are going to be in a very similar position as we are now with having to find revenue and cut expenses. This Organizational Review gives your administration a very good hand up and a very good bit of direction in order to seek where we’re going to find that revenue in 2021 if indeed we still see decline in the economy.”
Armfelt went on to note that contracting out the health and safety and human resources positions in 2021 will result in a savings to the town of roughly $100,000. After the introduction of the review, Coun. Jack Brewin moved immediately for adoption, but others on council weren’t so sure.
“There’s some good recommendations in here, and there’s some that I’m not in favour of,” said Coun. Joe Strojwas. “I don’t think we’ve had enough discussion on this. I think we need to review this, sit down as a committee and go through and weigh out all these factors, because that’s not something that we’ve done as a council, and I believe before we proceed and approve this, I think we as council need to sit down and review all this at a work table and just see how it all going to be affected, and who it is going to affect. I’m sorry, but there’s lots of things here that I’m in favour of but there’s some that I don’t, and grouping them all in together is not the right way for me to go.”
Citing correspondence she had received as justification, Coun. Carly Firth had a tepid reaction to the review.
“I cannot support this motion based on correspondence that I’ve received today. I’m not prepared to pass this review. I believe that, as Councillor Strojwas mentioned, we have a little bit more considering to do. Again, there are some good recommendations, but I am not prepared to support that motion today.”
Coun. Louie Tams wanted to delay adoption.
“I also would like to echo what Councillor Strojwas said. There are some very good recommendations in this report, some that I can truly really get behind and support, but there’s a few that I can’t. And I think that Councillor Strojwas’ suggestion that we sit down as council and have a good, basically round table, discussion about this document is totally warranted. I cannot support the motion to pass it just like that, I would rather delay this until our next council meeting.”
Brewin argued the review had already been discussed multiple times at the council table.
“I believe we have discussed this, at least twice or three times, and we’re all aware of what the circumstances are with today’s economy. And we can delay this, but I stand with my motion.”
Mayor Andrew Prokop sided with his fellow councillors.
“I have to echo also what Councillor Firth had to say, and some of the recent information we’ve received is important and needs to be considered.”
Following discussion, the motion put forward by Brewin to adopt the Organizational Review document as presented was defeated by a 6-1 vote. Brewin was the sole vote in favour. In a follow-up motion, council voted 6-1 to hold a special meeting in closed session to discuss the Organizational Review. Brewin opposed the motion.
On Oct. 19, town council held a special meeting in which the Organizational Review was a topic for closed session discussion, but following this no resolution was passed formally adopting the document.