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City of Edmonton must defend its oversized staff: councillor

WATCH ABOVE: Following provincial budget cuts, questions are now being raised by Edmonton councillors about city tax increases, and how many employees the city has on the payroll. Vinesh Pratap explains.

Editor’s note: The headline of this story, first published Dec. 2, 2019, was amended to clarify that Coun. Michael Walters is not calling for staff cuts; just clear justification for the size of the city’s staff.

Now that Edmonton city council has had the latest budget documents to mull over, one councillor has broached the traditionally taboo subject of layoffs.

Councillor Michael Walters is proposing the city reduce the size of the workforce. He’s referenced the number 2,000 as a way of getting the city’s budget in order.

“I’m not suggesting that we engage in mass layoffs in this budget or… 2,000 job cuts in this budget,” Walters said.

“What I am suggesting is we have to justify why our staffing levels are so much higher than other similar-sized cities. And we have to justify the relevancy of the programs that we’re offering.”

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He said the option of reducing the tax increase to zero per cent this year is worth some discussion.

“I’m more and more convinced because I hear from more and more people all the time that we need to not take more from folks in this economy. Small, locally owned, independent businesses — which are beloved by many of our citizens — are struggling to keep up with increased costs, particularly with those associated with taxes.”

He has confirmed to Global News that layoffs of a workforce of roughly 15,000 will be part of his line of questioning to city administration when city council begins deliberations Thursday afternoon with a public hearing.

“Cities our size — we have about 2,000 more people than average. Why is that? Explain to me, in great detail, what is the justification for that?

“I think that’s a fair conversation for us to have.”

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READ MORE: Edmonton unions wondering about provincial chill in negotiations

Walters is also wondering if it’s time to bow out of some service areas that the city is involved with when it doesn’t have to be.

“I’m not saying that to be alarmist; I’m just saying that as a matter of justification.”

“There’s a bunch of social services that are provincial jurisdiction that we’ve been so kind-hearted and view as important services over the years, that we’ve taken them on.”

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Work with seniors is one example he gave, saying they could still have a seniors lens on programs they offer, but not have specific seniors’ programs.

“I see some options there for us that we’re going to have to finally, basically put our foot down and say: ‘We can’t pay for this anymore because the taxpayers of Edmonton can’t afford it.'”

READ MORE: Edmonton police budget at razor-thin tipping point after cuts

Walters’ proposed job cuts come at a time when the City of Edmonton is still in collective bargaining with its unions.

“It’s never the right time to do the right thing, I suppose in politics,” he said. “We have to do something meaningful and disruptive and this may be the time.”

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At last report, the city was offering the unions a 1.5 per cent increase over four years with the bulk of the money backloaded to 2021.

READ MORE: Edmonton councillors will have to find $26M in savings to keep tax increase at 2.6%

A report from city staff released late on Friday proposed $26 million in spending reductions just to keep the 2020 tax increase at the original target of 2.6 per cent. Another $44.1 million was identified in spending cuts to keep the tax increase next year at zero. That’s just the operating side of the budget, which drives the bulk of tax increases.

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Another $183 million in construction projects are being delayed, deferred or entirely discarded through 2022 to make the books balance after the province reduced grants to the city.

On Monday, the mayor said he doesn’t think a zero per cent tax increase budget is the smart way to go.

“I’ve lived here long enough to remember that the zero per cent scenario is really falling backwards against the cost of doing business,” Don Iveson said.

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“Every year you don’t at least adjust your budget by general inflation, you’re falling behind. And we saw what three years of falling behind meant for Edmonton, which was crumbling roads, deficient services, low sanctification, and all that means bad competitiveness for investment attraction, labour market. So, I think we’ve learned that lesson but we have to debate it every few years to remind ourselves why falling behind is not a good idea.

“I think zero would be digging a hole, that’s my personal view, but I know council has a variety of perspectives on this.”

He also said comparing one city’s staff to another’s is a hard comparison since some municipalities include things like libraries, police and transit staff, while others don’t.

“There’s a lot of apples to oranges questions around any of those comparatives,” Iveson said.

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“It’s important to review for efficiency and for effectiveness and to look at bench-marking, but I don’t think there’s 2,000 extra people sitting around the City of Edmonton not working very hard. I think our employees are working fairly tirelessly to deliver good services to Edmontonians.”

After Thursday’s public hearing, city council will begin several days of budget deliberations on Wednesday, Dec. 11.