Things got a little heated at a recent Huntsville Council meeting when staff brought forward a recommendation to increase the pay rate for some non-unionized positions at Town Hall.
Huntsville CAO Denise Corry and Town Manager of Human Resources Lisa Smith were before council with the recommendation which, if approved, would add about $911,000 to the municipality’s expenditures for non-unionized positions. Those funds could be initially phased-in over three years, according to the recommendation before council, but would not include the customary annual Cost of Living Allowance (COLA).
In 2018 and with council approval, human resources consultants Pence & Associates were hired to develop a non-union compensation program for municipal staff and include market reviews for union employees as well as volunteer fire fighters in its study.
According to information from the consultant, it surveyed 11 comparator municipalities including all three towns in Muskoka as well as the City of Orillia, the towns of Wasaga Beach, Collingwood, Innisfil and East Gwillimbury, Essa, Oro-Medonte, and Springwater townships, and the County of Essex. It also sent out a survey to three hospital organizations and one responded (Grey Bruce Health Services).
In a presentation to council in November, the consultant concluded that for the majority of positions, the Town of Huntsville’s job rate falls below the 50th percentile of the market. It also notes that one position is above the 50th percentile, while another position is above the 75th percentile of the market.
Councillor Tim Withey who is new to this term of council said he was not privy to the consultant’s presentation in November and asked if he could see the market survey used by the consultant.
Smith said the market survey wasn’t provided, just the presentation.
“How was there no market survey provided?” asked Withey.
Corry told Withey that council provided approval for the study and “the intricate details of how that study rolls out is not something that would be before council. What comes before council is the cost of the outcome of that study. So Lisa (Smith) and I have worked very closely with the consultant in order to make sure that positions seem reasonable where they fall within the bands, the information was provided to us with respect to our comparators, which was presented in the presentation… so that information was provided but the actual hard data is something that would not normally be before council,” said Corry. “Because council’s role would not be to evaluate or determine if that data was correct, that’s what the consultant was hired for and that’s why we staff didn’t do it internally ourselves, either.”
Withey insisted that in order to make a decision additional information should be provided. “I don’t know why that would be kept away from us, I think that that’s an integral part of making a decision on any of these things that affect budgets, taxpayers, et cetera.… I would like to see that please.”
Corry pushed back and said, “My response to that would be that you have myself as CAO in place to ensure that the general management and the administration and conduct and business affairs of the Town is carried out,” adding that approval was given to hire a consultant. She said while she would follow the direction given around the council table, she does question what the “value would be of council diving into that level of evaluation when we hire a consultant to do all of that for us,” adding that neither she nor the HR manager “would have all the raw data either. So I’m just a little bit confused why that would be of value around the table.”
Corry said if you break down some of the data it could identify the exact amount an employee is being paid, “so that is confidential information, we can’t give that. What we could give to you are the pay bands.” Corry also noted that none of the information has been released to staff, “so there would be a bit of an issue with us releasing that information publicly within our organization. It would come obviously to council for discussion and then at the end of the day, should council choose not to do anything, or come in at a lower percentile, whatever the case may be, certainly makes it difficult for staff to have seen what might have been and what was decided.”
A frustrated Withey noted that the sunshine list certainly reveals some of that information. “If you want to redact something and give pay bands that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate to ask for the background information. I’m concerned that there seems to be this level of secrecy, when all I am asking for is the information to do my job.”
Corry responded: “Councillor Withey, with all due respect, I can’t give you any information that I don’t disclose to the rest of council, and that can only be done by a virtue of a council meeting. So I guess if there is direction from this group for us to provide all of that information in a public session, we would take that recommendation and confirm that we’re not in contravention of any privacy with respect to the third-party information that was collected and whether there’s any issue with us releasing that publicly by virtue of identifiable individuals.”
Huntsville Mayor Scott Aitchison asked whether some of that data could be shared in closed session.
“If it’s about identifiable individuals and the clerk feels that that warrants closed session discussion, then yes,” said Corry.
Deputy Mayor Karin Terziano said that while she did not know the level of information Councillor Withey was asking for, “what’s before us is approving basically a million dollar expenditure so council is privy through the inner circle to the Town’s current pay band system and where positions within the Town fall… so why is the new pay band and where positions fall not part of what we can see?”
Corry replied that the new proposed pay bands had not yet been approved. “So until such time as we’re able to fund the new bands that have been established by the consultant, it doesn’t exist,” she said, adding that it is not up to council to determine whether an employee is in the right pay band or how much of an increase a certain employee should get, that is her role as administrator, therefore it should not impact their decision.
“This conversation is getting uncomfortable,” said Councillor Brian Thompson. “I totally agree with what you’re saying. I think this is just an area where we as councillors just have no business going. That’s your job and that’s Lisa’s job, that’s what we pay you for.”
Councillor Dan Armour said he’s not personally interested in who falls within what band and who is getting what wage. “What would be important for me, anyhow, is to see which bands are deficient compared to other bands – maybe one is 30 per cent less and one is 25 per cent, and which bands might be moving. That might be more beneficial.”
Councillor Nancy Alcock said she would have no problem with certain parts of the report being redacted. “I don’t need to see names,” she said. Alcock was critical of the consultant’s presentation, calling it deficient and somewhat dismissive of questions posed at the time. She said a bit more information would be appreciated.
Although the information was not in any report, Corry said that based on the consultant’s eleven comparators, “we are currently paying our staff at the 25th percentile, based on those eleven.” Corry further added that at the 60th percentile mark, which was being recommended by staff, about 15 staff members would be red circled “and the majority would receive increases, some minor, some quite substantial based on market.”
Corry said staff appreciate that it is a difficult year with many requests from both staff and the community putting pressure on the 2019 budget, “but at the end of the day, these are what these positions are valued at based on market. You saw our comparators in the presentation. The municipality just south to us is paying substantially more for positions and the question I think we need to ask ourselves is do we want to be that employer that people want to come [to], do we want to be an employer of choice and that’s all part of the conversation about compensation.”
Corry also questioned whether council wanted to take the chance of seeing staff leaving the municipality for higher paying employment elsewhere. “Do we want people to leave before we implement a fair market?”
Councillors Jonathan Wiebe and Alcock asked for further examples of the municipality’s employment experience and how hard it has or has not been to fill positions.
Terziano said there seems to be some confusion between what people are asking and what they’re perceived to be asking. “I think what they’re asking is we have a request for a million dollars here and we’re asking for some more supportive information and it’s entirely up to you to bring us what you feel you can bring us, but we’re clearly saying there’s not enough here to make a decision today.”
In the end, council postponed the motion before it, pending more information to be brought back when it meets again in January.
You can find the consultant’s PowerPoint presentation at this link.
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