A reckoning could be in store for the Norfolk County workforce during January’s 2021 budget deliberations.
Due, in part, to the hardship imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Norfolk council has asked senior staff to prepare a draft budget with a zero increase in operational spending.
Achieving this, according to staff, would require eliminating more than 50 full-time jobs for total savings of $4 million. Details on how this might be achieved were to be presented to council this week.
Norfolk CAO Jason Burgess prepared the county’s 700-plus workforce for the discussion to come with a communiqué on Dec. 4.
“The severity of this budget crisis would be difficult at any time,” he says. “But when you consider that COVID-19 has disrupted the global economy and many people are struggling with business failures and layoffs, this is a difficult time to further burden the taxpayer.
“It is clear that significant changes are required. Council provided budgetary guidance of a zero levy increase and a two per cent capital reserve increase to help with our infrastructure gap.
“The budget options document that will be going to council next week (Dec. 8) provides for a list of significant changes in an attempt to accomplish this. Some of these changes are severe.”
Staff and council began the 2021 budget process poles apart.
In June, council asked staff to think in terms of a zero per cent levy increase. The draft budget staff came up with would increase spending by 13 per cent.
Coupled with the 12 per cent increase in spending approved in the 2020 budget in January, this would translate into a 25 per cent spending increase in two years. Burgess says this is not prudent financial management.
The budget documents for this week’s council meeting included several attachments describing how council might hold the line on spending. The accompanying report said this is challenging because there are built-in cost increases such as collective agreements and essential infrastructure upgrades that cannot be deferred.
To compensate, the report contains a number of cost-cutting proposals related to capital purchases, service delivery, out-sourcing and other strategies designed to reduce expenditures.
Examples include reducing the number of garbage bags households can put curbside from four to one, further reductions in Norfolk’s museum budget, user-fee increases, a review of mileage rates, deferring levy-supported capital projects, reduced street sweeping, and the contracting out of maintenance on light vehicles.
Even so — after these proposals are accounted for — the cuts leave staff 4.1 per cent short of council’s goal of a zero per cent levy increase.
“Attachment 4” at the end of the report, which was prepared by treasury staff, outlines how achieving the remaining $4 million in savings could be achieved through the elimination of more than 50 full-time positions. Examples include:
- Cuts to the bylaw enforcement department. Average salary: $93,000.
- Cancellation of the 12-hour ambulance shift approved in January. Savings: $300,000.
- Additional cuts to Norfolk’s museum budget. The elimination of a museum produces wage and benefit savings of $185,000.
- Recreation cutbacks. Employees in this area earn between $25 and $34 an hour.
- Cuts to finance and IT staff, where wages average $85,000 a year.
- Cuts to the clerk’s department. Average salary: $70,000.
Significant wage savings are also identified through cutbacks in public works, customer service and the planning department.
The scenarios proposed are drastic. The cutbacks meet council’s objective of a zero per cent levy increase. However, in his note to the county workforce, Burgess says senior management does not necessarily support them
“Management will not be recommending council make all of the potential changes in the 2021 budget year,” he says. “That being said, significant changes will have to occur in 2021, and after 2021 more changes and reductions will be required in 2022 and likely 2023 in order to get the county back on a more stable financial footing.”