Pandemic forces restructuring on Norfolk County

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The silver lining to COVID-19 in Norfolk could be a leaner, more efficient municipality with a happier, more flexible workforce.

That’s the conclusion of two reports that came to Norfolk council on Oct. 13, one of which calls for the eventual termination of two leases on core administrative facilities and the possible closure of a third.

“Businesses across all industries have had to re-look at how they operate due to COVID-19,” Shelley Darlington, Norfolk’s general manager of corporate services, says in a report on “Project Domus.”

“Work from home and `Zoom meetings’ are now part of our culture. Norfolk staff took the opportunity to take advantage of the crisis that COVID-19 caused and looked at how we can permanently capture the efficiencies we observed from this crisis.”

“Domus” is Latin for “home.” Project Domus involves re-assigning more than 180 employees to different administrative facilities within the corporation, with a large, work-at-home component for most.

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Over time, the shift will allow the municipality to reduce its corporate office requirements. This, the report says, clears the way for exiting the Health and Social Services building on Gilbertson Drive in Simcoe – home of the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit – and the Robinson Street administration building, also in Simcoe.

The report says the annual operating cost of the Robinson building is $1.2 million while the Gilbertson building costs $389,000.

The annual lease on the Robinson building eclipses the $1-million mark in 2021 and doesn’t expire until June, 2030. Norfolk CAO Jason Burgess says the lease is a bad deal and doesn’t make sense for the county.

“We could build a custom building like Haldimand did and it would cost the taxpayer less in the long run than the rent we are paying and we would own the building,” Burgess said Wednesday.

“With Project Domus – when our leases on Robinson and Gilbertson are up for renewal — we will be able to either build a significantly smaller building or lease much less space.”

Project Domus clears the path for exiting the Langton administrative building on Albert Street and selling it as surplus. It also allows the re-location of parks and cemeteries staff from the Adult Community Building on Pond Street in Simcoe, another facility the county wants to sell.

Taken to its full potential, Darlington says Project Domus could put Norfolk in a position to close another of its major administrative structures – possibly even Governor Simcoe Square itself.

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Setting Norfolk on this trajectory comes at a cost.

Tuesday’s report says Norfolk will need to spend $745,000 next year ensuring re-positioned staff have the appropriate equipment and technology in the appropriate locations. The report says this investment will pay for itself within seven years.

Norfolk staff cite a number of immediate and long-term benefits from this restructuring.

From a human-resources standpoint, Darlington says the shift will “attract and retain employees,” create “a positive-work life balance,” reduce employee stress by decreasing commute times, “provide possible income tax benefits,” and “reduce office distractions.”

Burgess said the work-from-home option will eventually translate into a higher-quality workforce. Many municipalities offer this option while Norfolk – pre-pandemic – did not. Burgess said this has cost Norfolk staff in the recent past while discouraging high-quality applications for other positions.

The reception at Norfolk council was – by and large – positive. Port Dover Coun. Amy Martin, chair of Tuesday’s meeting, said the work-from-home option is important to the county’s ability to build the workforce of the future.

“It’s an investment in our corporation,” Martin said. “I look forward to giving our staff that flexibility. It’s now an expectation of employees, especially younger families with children.”

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