Banff council has cut $110,000 in staff wages from its 2011 operating budget and chopped two staff positions for 2012; one in planning, the other a recreation project planner.
Council approved the cuts during its final round of budget deliberations Wednesday, Dec. 29 – deliberations which saw Banff’s municipal representatives approve a $28.5 million operating and $5.9 million capital budget for 2011, along with a carry-over of $1.7 million from 2010 for a total committed capital budget of $7.6 million.
After a lengthy debate, four of seven members of council agreed to the cuts with Mayor Karen Sorensen and Councillors Chip Olver and Grant Canning voting against the move, which could have gone much deeper had Coun. Paul Baxter’s original motion passed.
At the start of the meeting, Baxter had proposed a wage freeze for 2011, along with no cost of living and wage grid increases, which are given to employees based on their length of employment.
The move would have saved approximately $168,000.
Baxter said he knows he is developing a reputation for wanting to cut wages, but he said he saw it as the only way to reduce the budget without service cuts or immediately eliminating staff positions.
“I realize that my reputation as town councillor has become ‘Baxter slashing wages’,” he said, adding residents of Banff who have approached him have been asking for efficiencies to be found in the budget.
“Over the past few months we’ve been trying to do that and over the past few months every efficiency has been looked at.
“Wages, I feel, that is the last area that I can make an influence on this budget and to challenge this budget,” he said.
Baxter said he did not doubt the skills or motives of municipal employees, but saw wages as the only area council could have a positive effect on in the 2011 budget.
Sorensen said she did not see removing COLA (cost of living allowance) and wage grid increases as a way to make the budget more efficient. Instead, she said, she saw it as a cut and as a result could not support the motion.
“That motion is a one-off effort for a one-off year. It’s not a sustainable plan. I do believe that some of the suggestions for 2012 and 2013 are more planned out and more sustainable and with merit, but I can’t support a one-off motion that I see as a quick fix for a one-year concern,” she said.
Administration did find adjustments to reduce the operating budget by $198,000 in 2012 and $253,000 in 2013, with those funds earmarked largely for capital reserves and other projects, primarily an urban forest project.
Coun. Stavros Karlos said he supported Baxter’s initiative as a means to help Banff’s beleaguered small business owners.
“Small business is at risk. It’s imperative we drive costs down for our small business.
“It is a challenging environment out there and there is no evidence to me that the market is about to turn around in the near future,” Karlos said.
“I support this because it has to come from somewhere. Small business is on fire and that is a fact.”
Coun. Leslie Taylor, meanwhile, reminded council that the $79,000 administration had been originally tasked to remove from the budget was not a small amount, to which is often referenced.
“This is not a wish list budget and all we could shave off was $79,000, that is not the case,” she said.
She suggested councillors keep in mind that administration was forced to include $250,000 for policing and uncertainty in unconditional grants from the province.
It was an idea that Sorensen clearly agreed with, as she said the budget came to council “efficient and bare and we decided in our wisdom to add a few things”.
Another wage freeze, she said, would hold employees back, which is not an option that would help to keep the municipality viable.
According to Town Manager Robert Earl, a wage freeze was initiated in 2009. The wage freeze was lifted in 2010, which was replaced with a hiring freeze.
Currently, the Town manager’s office approves hiring each vacant position, and according to Earl, managers have to make a case to fill any open positions.
Through that, Earl said, administration was able to save at least $174,000.
Baxter said if $168,000 could be found elsewhere, he would remove his motion.
“I asked for it out of wages because I have been informed there is no room for efficiencies anywhere else,” he said. “It is our job to challenge administration to do that bit better. I feel administration is leading council and council should lead administration. With $28.5 million (proposed 2011 budget) in expenditures, to find $168,000 is not radical. If it can be found elsewhere, I will remove the motion.”
Olver, who was among the voices against Baxter’s proposal, did support an amendment put forward by Karlos to remove the references to wage grid increases and COLA and to give administration discretion as to how to remove $168,000 from wages. Olver added she still could not support the amended motion as it cut from such an important area.
Olver added she would be interested in seeing administration prepare a report on staffing issues in general, such as absenteeism and wage and hiring freezes, and how it affects the Town.
Instead, Taylor suggested amending the amount to $110,000, which she described as a reasonable target.
Taylor’s amendment carried with Baxter and Karlos voting in opposition of the amendment.