Thursday, January 21, 2021

Does the Municipality of Meaford Employ Too Many?

With every municipal budget season I am sure to hear from folks about the number of staff employed by this municipality. During this year’s budget season I have heard from more and more residents who are convinced that Meaford’s staff is bloated and could be slashed – some say in half. Several have asked for my take on the issue, and many won’t like my take as I am surprised that the number of staff isn’t significantly higher.

The Municipality of Meaford employs the equivalent of roughly 93 full time staffers (75 full time, with part time staff equalling another 18 full time employees), up from 81 in 2013. Among the additions to staff in recent years have been the transition of the wastewater treatment workers from contract to municipal staff (adding three to the municipal staff roster), additional bylaw enforcement, and so on.

My thoughts on the size of Meaford’s staff are as follows:

First, it is a fact that most department heads and many staff wear multiple hats. From an outsider’s perspective, though a perspective that has more than a decade of reporting on municipal governance, I see a municipal staff that in several areas are overworked and stretched too thin.

That said, I know that few shed tears for government workers at any level, and I get it, but reality is reality.

Here’s my other take – the Municipality of Meaford is essentially a corporation with an annual budget of roughly $30 million (operating and capital). I challenge folks to find any business or organization/government agency that can run a corporation that offers or is responsible for literally dozens of services crossing the spectrum, from road and bridge maintenance to cultural services, facilities, and programs, to operating swimming pools and arenas with a $30 million annual budget with less than 100 employees.

I know my take won’t be popular but it is based on reality, it is based on an intimate knowledge and more than a decade of reporting on this stuff. Not to mention, before I moved to Meaford I worked for a company that operated with an annual budget of roughly $50 million, and we had in the range of 300 employees in three provinces and three countries – and we did essentially one thing at a base level; we certainly didn’t have to provide dozens of different services and products, many of which would be as different as apples and steak knives.

When talking about the size of municipal staff, we should ask ourselves some questions.

What company or organization do you work for? How wide of a range are the services that you provide? What is the annual budget of your workplace, and how many employees are there?

Ask how your numbers compare to a corporation the size of this municipality, bearing in mind a municipality is a service-based industry, and as in any service-based industry, payroll is typically the largest expense because the product you offer is essentially people to provide service.

I would finally also suggest this – we live in a small town where finding solid, well-paying employment is a challenge and where the local economy is fragile at best. Many suggest that the municipal staff should be slashed in half, they suggest that this municipality could be run with around 50 employees.

Believe it if you must. But in a small rural town, do you really want to eliminate 40 or 50 well paid jobs? Jobs with good wages that get pumped back into this local economy because 99 percent of the staff are residents too? Really?

Eliminate those good jobs?

If we were talking about a factory or some other local private sector employer planning to slash 50 of their 100 employees, we as a community would rally together and fight to save their jobs, because folks realize how valuable those jobs are to the small community and the greater good.

I am not suggesting that the size of our municipal staff should never be cut, but whenever someone suggests to me that the number of municipal employees should be slashed, my first question is always ‘what services would you cut or eliminate in order to cut staff?’ Most often I receive no answer, though at times I am told that we don’t need a library, or we don’t need a museum, but mostly when I ask the question all I hear are crickets.

When it comes to the size of municipal staff, we do need to pay attention, we do need to ensure that every position is necessary and justified, but if you want to talk staff reductions, we must talk about what services we can do with less of, or without completely, and few seem to want to entertain that conversation.

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