The release last Monday (March 5) of the salaries of municipal employees earning in excess of $100,000 in 2017 revealed some eye-popping pay raises to several senior managers.
In the case of Ross Tucker, director of parks and recreation, a salary hike in the 20 per cent range
And for clerk Maria Konefal, a 10 per cent pay raise.
One of the explanations given by city administration is some of the senior managers have increased job responsibilities.
Let’s be honest. How many residents out there have had more work piled on them over the past few years with nary a penny added to their pay cheque, let alone a double-digit wage increase?
This salary revelation prompted the following comment from reader Jen Swales.
“Incredible! Almost $1,000 a month wage increases for most City Management,” wrote Swales. “Way to go setting an example for all the other workers at City Hall! Way to go to showing taxpayers restraint and fiscal responsibility. Gobbling at the trough.”
To be fair, it’s not all city managers who benefitted from such largesse, but at least seven did.
An in-depth conversation this week with city manager Wendell Graves resulted in some background to the rationale behind the generous salary adjustments.
And resurrection of one of the most controversial reports presented to council – in one form or another – over the past ten years.
More on that in a moment.
“We have had over the last two years some significant structural changes in the city,” Graves pointed out. “One of those was we brought the Elgin-St. Thomas Housing Corp. into the city and that brought not only all the employees, but approximately 450 housing units.
“When it came into the city, the primary functions there were divided between the parks and property department and social services, our former Ontario Works,” continued Graves.
“And the finance side came to the treasury department. So we knew we needed to take a look at job evaluation for senior management to make sure all of those were in line because we were adding those new responsibilities and shifting them around. That was the impetus (for new salary structure).”
So does that explain why Elizabeth Sebestyen, who has done an outstanding job as director of Ontario Works, benefitted from a paltry $200 wage increase in 2017?
A review of management salaries “was all part of the non-union agreement and the wages are included in that schedule,” adds Graves. “That (new wage structure) was approved by council.”
Approved by this council. You can bet members won’t be approving similar financial rewards to unionized staff.
It was at this point in the conversation Graves brought up the much-maligned Dobbie Report.
“One of the recommendations (of this report) was the city needed to take a look at salary structure to make sure the compensations were in line and so that we would be an attractive place to not only retain employees, but to attract employees.”
Yes, that was a recommendation of the report. However it was cherry-picked from numerous other recommendations.
Let’s collectively refresh our memory on the Dobbie Report.
It was originally intended to be a review of the environmental services department at city hall.
Undertaken in the summer of 2014 by London consultant Tim Dobbie, it involved interviews with staff, department heads, members of council and outside stakeholders. Along with 10 sweeping recommendations, the review detailed major issues facing the City of St. Thomas, including the almost $300 million infrastructure deficit.
This corner uncovered the fact council of the day on Nov. 3, 2014 was presented with an abridged version of the report and it was never established whether the current council has been privy to the full report.
One damning revelation of the complete document cited “a lack of respect” between roads staff and sewer/water staff and concerns about the “management style” of Water and Wastewater Supervisor Cyril McCready.
An embarrassing finding that laid bare a long-simmering situation in the environmental services domain.
That version of the report raised many other questions, including how did the issue of dividing the duties of Graves — who had been CAO/clerk and is now city manager — become what appears to be the most important part of what was to be a review of the environmental services department?
Will the city act on the recommendation to move the sewer/water staff out of the Burwell Rd. operations centre to the new community recycling centre?
Or how about the recommendation Graves “implement a formal approach to the use of corporate teams ensuring all major issues and priorities of the City of St. Thomas are managed by corporate teams with membership on those teams available to staff at all levels of the organization.”
Four years on and the Dobbie Report is still a key piece of the puzzle in relation to the comings and goings at city hall.
WHAT NEXT FOR FORMER POLICE HQ SITE?
As the city found out last year, there’s not much demand for a long-in-the-tooth building that served as a former police headquarters.
At a reference committee meeting last December, council bounced around ideas on what to do with the site of the now vacant Colin McGregor Justice Building once it is demolished.
Attempts to sell the building last summer proved fruitless and the estimated cost to demolish the two-storey structure is $400,000.
Could that be the result of asbestos inside the building and the fact it was constructed on the site of a coal gasification plant and, as a result, there is coal-tar contamination.
That expense is built into the long-term financing for the new police building on CASO Crossing, according to Wendell Graves.
He adds, “A good chunk of that is for the asbestos abatement before the demolition can take place.”
As for the contaminants, they are not a factor in the demolition process.
“We’re just talking about the building itself,” stressed Graves. “That north side (of the property) will always remain under asphalt as a parking lot.”
At that December meeting, staff provided an overview of a concept design for the site.
It included green space on the south side of the city-owned property, a private reading garden with access through the library and retaining much of the St. Catherine Street municipal parking lot.
No all councillors embraced the initial concept.
Coun. Gary Clarke asked if “we need all that space.”
He added, “Could it be apartments to drive people downtown?”
Coun. Mark Tinlin sought “more research into other options.”
This, in spite of at least two reports to council promoting the concept of a downtown civic square type of development.
In 2016, city staff drafted a conceptual plan for such a development that would link city hall, the public library and the London & Port Stanley Railway corridor.
And a 2015 retail market study undertaken by Dillon Consulting and W. Scott Morgan & Associates urged the city to develop the former police headquarters property for “community use including active and passive recreational uses.”
While Graves reiterated the bulk of the building footprint will become a grassy area, with trees to be planted alongside the railway corridor, much has yet to be resolved.
“One of the things on our to-do list was council asked us to explore potential uses for the St. Catherines Street parking lot across the street to see if we need to retain all of those assets.
“And one of the things we need to do on the St. Catherine Street site is we need to put in a couple of core samples to see if we have any environmental issues over there.”
WEEDING OUT THE FACTS ON WALNUT MANOR GARDEN
For the first time in recent memory, the Walnut Manor situation was briefly discussed at Monday’s council meeting.
Seems an informal group of city officials are looking into the conditions at the home operated by Niagara Supportive Living and whether the city can adopt a bylaw to regulate non-licensed group homes.
London has in place such a piece of legislation.
In addition, Welland MPP Cindy Forster is the author of private member’s Bill 135, an act to establish a framework for the licensing of supportive living accommodation.
It has passed second reading and is before committee.
In a conversation with Forster earlier this year she noted, “Basically, these homes provide low-rent accommodation to vulnerable tenants, who are considered high-needs a lot of the time. The shared accommodations typically can be room or room and board, with additional levels of support like food and meal prep, physical assistance, personal care, housekeeping and medication.
“This bill just provides a framework for operators and sets minimum standards that must be met so that vulnerable tenants no longer suffer from a broken system.
“The bill defines what a home is, requires home operators to be licensed, similar to retirement homes—failure to have a licence is a punishable offence of up to $1,000 a day—and would set a framework for inspection and complaint protocols.”
In the meantime Elena Dempsey, a lawyer at Elgin-Oxford Legal Clinic in St. Thomas, for several years, has advocated for the residents of Walnut Manor.
“It’s one thing to grow your own vegetables, it’s another to grow vegetables a bunch of people are going to eat.”
One thing Dempsey is proposing is a community garden for the Walnut Street property.
“We could get people in during the summer to garden and the people there could get involved if they want,” she told City Scope in January.
“It’s pretty easy to grow tomatoes and zucchini,” she pointed out.
Well it appears such a garden was put in place some time ago and was apparently shut down by Elgin St. Thomas Public Health.
We contacted Cathie Walker, director of health protection at the health unit for the back story.
“It depends on what was observed at the time they were doing it,” stressed Walker.
“The issue for us is an inspected kitchen has to provide food that comes from an inspected source. You have to have the ability to trace back stuff to where it was produced. So, then it gets a bit messy about whether that came from the garden in the backyard and who is overseeing it to ensure proper practices are being followed.
“It’s one thing to grow your own vegetables, it’s another to grow vegetables a bunch of people are going to eat. That may have been the approach taken in the past. It would have followed the standards of the food premises regulations.
“It’s an interesting question because there is something nice about that arrangement. There may be ways of working around that (food safety) and being creative about it.”
Let’s hope so because fresh, garden-grown vegetables would help balance out a menu leaning heavily toward cereal, powdered milk, peanut butter and jam sandwiches and salty soup.
If ever creativity was required, now is the time at Walnut Manor.
FOR THE CALENDAR
Noon on April 1 is the deadline for nominations for the city’s Youth Awards. These are geared to young people between the ages of 13 and 30 who are residents of Elgin county.
Those being nominated should possess special or unique qualities that have made a difference in the community that may include but are not limited to leadership, dedication, innovation and creativity.
Individuals, organizations and peers can nominate youth who meet the above criteria by completing the nomination form on the city hall web site and submitting it prior to the deadline.
Questions and comments may be emailed to: City Scope
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