PARRY SOUND - One councillor’s proposition to privatize core services was met with a resounding no by 20 or so town staff and councillors at the town’s June 5 council meeting.
On Tuesday evening, Coun. Dave Williams took aim at town employees, wanting staff to bring back a proposed term of reference to establish a committee to look at privatizing some core services as described in the town’s Strategic Plan.
Reading from a prepared statement, Williams said corporations, such as the Town of Parry Sound, must evaluate each dollar that is spent, especially in challenging times.
“The best interests of the town, in this case, have been compiled through several focus groups, as well as with the inclusion of input from both staff, and members of council,” said Williams. “The results of the compilation of that input, is called council’s Strategic Plan. That plan relates to our municipal budget in a very important way. There are very few, if any, great organizations that operate and devise a budget without a plan. This organization, the Corporation of the Town of Parry Sound, has approved a plan that includes the following commitments to, quote ‘explore the privatization of some core services.’ With that objective in mind, I have repeatedly asked for a summary of each of the town’s clearly defined departments. It’s only with such a summary that we can evaluate and measure the value of each dollar spent and consequently explore privatization of some core services...All great organizations should evaluate and measure the cost of delivering core services and examine the compared costs of out-sourcing those services.”
Although council was aware of the item on its agenda, many were taken aback by Williams’ request and expressed concern over having no time to review his suggestion before the meeting.
“This is rather difficult, not having the chance to read (Williams’ statement) prior and digest it,” began Coun. Paul Borneman. “But I’m wondering...where would we be going with respect to the establishment of a committee to look into this? There’s a lot of analysis to be done in Regional Economic Development Advisory Committee (REDAC) and anywhere in the region. Since I’ve been here, there’s been a number of organization reviews done by outside groups. I think without that kind of professional analysis we’d be basing any plan that we might develop on ideology, gut feeling, emotion - it wouldn’t necessarily be (unbiased) data. I appreciate where you’re going, councillor Williams, and certainly we all recognize that we need to save money, that finances are tight. But I’m just not sure what the outcome of this would be. Especially, Mr. (CAO Rob) Mens correct me if I’m wrong, I know that senior staff try to be objective with this, but in asking staff to make recommendations about this I think that’s not necessarily a productive plan.”
Between the late 1990s and 2010 the town had several companies contracted to run the Bobby Orr Community Centre (BOCC) and its other recreation facilities, the waste water treatment plant and the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts.
In every instance, when the town took back the running of those services, it saved money.
“It was a very short-lived disastrous contract,” said Mens following the meeting, of the company, Recreation Services Incorporated, that ran the BOCC and the town’s recreation centres. “It was a complete fiasco. (The contract) terminated in 1996 and it was just over a year long. It was a short contract, because it was such a disaster.”
Although, Mens said Ontario Clean Water Agency, ran the waste water treatment plant from August 2007 through to mid-August 2010 well, it cost the town double. The town now runs the facility with its own staff.
Through those privatizations, Mens said the town learned a lesson about its employees, and their dedication and efficiency compared to an outside company.
“What it would do to morale with staff, would really be quite damaging,” Men said at the June 5 council meeting, of contracting out core services. “We do have employees that are committed, we have an excellent working relationship. I think they have an excellent relationship with the community and certainly with management staff; certainly I can say that quite comfortably. I think that displacing staff - we do have our budget challenges, no doubt about that and 2013 is going to be difficult - but contracting out, notwithstanding the collective agreement issues that would have to be dealt with, I’m not sure that we get to deliver the best services to our residents and our ratepayers.”
Coun. Brad Horne said there were a number of ways to achieve the goals stated within the town’s Strategic Plan.
“In terms of the particular goal on privatization of services, I think we have a very competent core of directors that we saw this year who work with council for the budget and the budget challenges we had this year,” said Horne. “I think certainly their ability to look at the costs in their department and come forward with recommendations for us here at council proved to be well spent this year and again. It was a very difficult year and there were some hard decisions and I foresee the same process happening next year.”
Coun. Bonnie Keith admitted she is often known as a councillor who is always concerned about the town’s spending, but she too felt other alternatives could be examined.
“Right now, I see approximately 30 of our staff sitting in the audience here,” said Keith. “That says to me they’re concerned, there’s a morale issue. We’ve already tightened the limits and the expectations of what we want with staff and then to ask staff, or a committee to come back with a terms of reference to say how can we look at privatization. To me, that’s kind of like you’re in a boat in an ocean and now you ask the group, ‘who is it you would like to dump out of the boat? Because hey, I think it would work better if there was a few less of you in there.’ I think that this is not practical at this time. If we come to a point that we feel that it is necessary to contract and get to that stage only after we’ve analyzed and reviewed things and looked at other alternatives. But I don’t see where we need to do that right now.”
Mens left the council chambers during discussions to get a hard copy of the Strategic Plan, because Mayor Jamie McGarvey thought Williams’ quote from the document was incorrect.
The document, 2011-2014 Strategic Plan, reads, “Contracting out - pursue contracting out opportunities that do not conflict with collective agreement terms.”
Williams wanted to know the publication date of the document, because its wording, he said, did not match the Strategic Plan document he had at home.
“I think that that’s been changed since council voted on that so if we could look into that. Of course council doesn’t want to do anything that’s contradictory to our agreements, however, I do believe that phrase at the end may have been added after the vote - “
“Excuse me councillor Williams I think I remember seeing that it was in the package,” interjected McGarvey.
“I would be more than happy to bring my hard copy in that was supplied to me by staff,” continued Williams. “Either way. What is written there...who is currently working on that? If the suggestion was made that we’re on a boat and asking who’s going to jump off, if it was already approved, published and circulated to every mailbox in town, obviously someone was working on it or else it should not be there. Who is working on that, based on council’s direction?”
Mens said it’s an ongoing process and staff are already talking about the 2013 budget and looking for inefficiencies.
“(Regarding) contracting out, staff are fully cognizant of the terms of the collective agreement. We know that limitation, we are aware of what’s in council’s Strategic Plan, in terms of just looking at what could be contracted out, that’s an ongoing discussion, frankly. at everyone of our most recent senior-staff meetings,” said Mens.
Before council voted, McGarvey said, “We have two times, in the past, at two different areas that were contracted out, both ended up costing the municipality more money in the long run.”
Coun. Williams voted in favour of the direction while councillors Keith Saulnier, Horn and Keith voted against and Dan McCauley abstained.
On Wednesday morning a town staff member, who wanted to remain anonymous, said staff lost a year from their retirement pensions while another company ran the waste water treatment plant, suggested contracting out core services would be like a slap in the face to town employees.
“Somebody else looked after the waste water plant at another time and it was a complete disaster,” he said. “It costs the town a lot of money when these people walk away and the town has to take it back and start all over. The whole thing was a bad situation. Our pensions got screwed up for that entire year. It ended up costing the town more money and they had to take it back anyway. One of the concerns was the water treatment plant, this is our drinking water. We have one of the best plants going. For those people to just walk in here and take it over, it’s a shame. It doesn’t happen all the time, but they could bring in their own people. We live here, these are our jobs. You’re giving away our jobs, to outside people? I mean, come on. There’s got to be other ways to save money then to just contract things out.
“We take pride in what we do. We have a good water plant and we’ve never had an adverse and we’ve never had a boil water advisory. If something breaks we fix it right away. It’s not good for morale to turn around and say, ‘we’re looking to contract this out.’
“We were there to fight this for sure. How much money are you actually going to save? There’s got to be a better way to do this.”