COLUMN: Winds of change blowing in city hall

Nine managerial positions eliminated, and one union job cut. Parks and rec and engineering departments restructured.

COLUMN: Winds of change blowing in city hall

Nine managerial positions eliminated, and one union job cut. Parks and rec and engineering departments restructured.

$1.25 million saved annually.

Two senior department heads leaving.

Considering the city has close to 1,000 people on its payroll, a one per cent reduction in positions could be considered minor.

But for the City of Abbotsford, which has dug deep into taxpayers’ pockets in recent years, this is a major move, as is the prospect of a zero per cent tax increase next year.

Both are indications that the winds of change are blowing in city hall, and high time.

Not long after taking his seat at the council table, newcomer Henry Braun called the city’s spending habits “unsustainable.” That’s subjective, since with enough growth and tax increases, a city can mow through a lot of money.

However, both factors are finite, especially in Abbotsford’s case.

This city dug itself into a very deep financial hole with a $100-million plus sports centre, and financing a professional hockey team to play in it. Along with that, in recent years there have been some expensive but at least justifiable infrastructure spending on overpasses and airport expansion. And meanwhile, much to taxpayers’ chagrin, the number of city employees earning over $100,000 annually ballooned from 55 in 2010 to 88 in 2011.

Needless to say, a strong measure of fiscal conservatism was due.

A million bucks isn’t all that much in a total operating budget of $170 million, but it does roughly represent a one per cent tax increase.

That is, of course, if the full $1.25 million were to be actually saved in year one.

The 10 positions eliminated affect seven people, since three positions are vacant and won’t be filled.

Of those seven, city manager George Murray says several have been given working notice, in that they’ll complete whatever project they’re engaged in, and then be laid off.

It would be unlikely that the remainder will simply depart without some form of compensation, depending on their salary levels and contracts. How much that figure might be is unknown at this point. Murray won’t provide personnel informaiton, citing privacy issues.

The identities, I can almost accept, at this stage. The financial details, no. The city is required by law to name all employees earning over $75,000 annually. The people leaving are almost certainly on that list. It should be no secret as to the salaries being saved, nor the compensation paid.

Some staffers are also being promoted and given raises to acknowledge the extra duties they’re taking on to cover the eliminated positons.

I’d label all of that very much in the public interest.

Then there’s the matter of the two senior department heads leaving – general manager of economic development Jay Teichroeb, and GM of finance Pat Soanes. With salary levels in the $200,000 range their compensation packages will presumably be pricey. However, they’re not part of the 10 positions being cut, according to Murray, so whatever payout they receive wouldn’t be offset against the $1.25 million.

Assuming there are no further hires for the positions eliminated, and particularly, new ones, the savings will be there next year.

This was a welcome move. Another one would be a council commitment to a hiring freeze for the next year or two or three. Another would be a salary freeze in city hall.

Those initiatives would tell taxpayers that this demonstration of fiscal responsibility is not only a restructuring but a change of core governance philosophy.