After a two-day marathon budget debate last weekend, Brandon city councillors managed to whittle down the initially proposed 2.85 per cent tax increase for 2014 to 1.42 per cent.
And save for a single dissenting vote around the council table — Coun. Stephen Montague (Richmond) — the budget’s final draft garnered the support of everyone in the room.
Tempers flared throughout the weekend, and several small budget lines were debated at length — sometimes to the point of absurdity. And yet, unfortunately, this city council failed to address the single largest expense column in its budget — employee salaries — in any meaningful way.
Over the last few years, the Sun has written several stories detailing the rise in salaries for union and non-union city employees, including emergency services staff such as police officers and firefighter/paramedics.
Brandon police salaries as a percentage of the city’s total budget have grown over the last five years, from a net cost of $7,347,394 (12.1 per cent of the budget) in 2009 to a net cost of $11,196,467 (14.7 per cent of the budget) in 2013.
And, like police officers, firefighter/paramedics have also been heavily represented on the city’s annual compensation report, with several employees making the $50,000 list and beyond — many of whom having racked up overtime hours.
As regular Sun readers may recall, the number of employees making more than $50,000 actually increased by 12 in 2012, according to the 2012 disclosure report, and the number making more than $100,000 nearly doubled — to 57.
These are extraordinary salary numbers, and it’s not only unionized positions — administrative/managerial costs have become just as extravagant. As we have noted before on this page, the huge rise in employee costs has its roots in a 2012 budget decision by this council to add nearly $6 million to city employee salary lines.
A contentious motion moved by Montague would have reduced salaries by $250,000. It’s debatable whether this would have done much good, as it would only have cut three or four positions, but even this small move failed to gain enough support around the council table and was ultimately defeated on Sunday.
A few of the amendments that came out of the weekend budget deliberations we can get behind:
• A $500,000 increase to core infrastructure projects such as roads, sidewalks and drainage, bringing the city’s annual commitment to $1.5 million — still a drop in the bucket though, and,
• The forgiving of a 20-year-old loan to the Riverbank Discovery Centre worth $200,000 to free up funds for the river corridor’s redevelopment.
But council made several questionable decisions as well. In our opinion, given the skyrocketing salary costs facing the city, it makes little sense to cut $40,000 out of the human resources department legal fees budget that deals with union negotiations.
And while we support efforts to reduce fire department overtime costs, slashing $100,000 to the department’s overtime budget is not the best approach to trim overall costs, and in the long run could hinder emergency protection for the city.
We also note council essentially ignored costs associated with Sportsplex expenses and police vehicle replacements, and motions to trim budget lines for employee conference and luncheon attendance failed to gain support. And instead of trimming employees, council confirmed the addition of yet another position —a $48,555 housing specialist, whose salary could rise to $75,745 the following year.
Ironically, as councillors began looking at ways to trim the budget last weekend, Mayor Shari Decter Hirst suggested on Saturday that, just because this is an election year, councillors did not need to “throw common sense out of the window.”
But common sense tells us that these ongoing salary increases are simply unsustainable for a city of this size. And council’s continued failure to deal with the problem could have long lasting effects for this city.
In our opinion, council should commit to a thorough, independent review of staffing levels and salaries in this city. And until such a study is completed, new position hires should be frozen as should salaries for non-contractual employees.
Only then can our elected officials say they have done right by city taxpayers.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 15, 2014