In an unprecedented move during unprecedented times, Huntsville Council met remotely and instructed senior municipal staff to define the essential services the municipality provides, lay off non-essential staff at their discretion, and return to council on Monday with an update.
Huntsville Councillor Nancy Alcock tried to put the brakes on the motion. “Are we talking about staff being given permission to lay off 50 per cent of our staff?” questioned Alcock. “To me, that’s a really important decision and I need to see what those numbers look like… maybe we achieve the same cost-savings by sharing the load.”
She added, “I just need to know that that’s a council decision and you can come forward with a recommendation and I absolutely support that… this is not dissing staff at all, I just think that’s something council needs to be very cognizant of the decisions that are being made.”
Huntsville Mayor Karin Terziano reminded Alcock that staffing decisions are up to the CAO. “Council’s direction is to reduce expenses and it’s the CAO’s job to determine how best to do that,” she said.
Town CAO Denise Corry was seeking direction from council as to how to proceed during this pandemic emergency as it pertains to Town services, as well as preparing for recovery. Council also learned that nine municipal staff members had taken a layoff so far, some voluntary, but how many staff members should be kept on board seemed to be at the heart of the discussion as the municipality struggles to find savings and prepare for a heavy financial impact.
Councillor Bob Stone said that he “was very surprised to hear that some of the facilities still were filled with staff in these empty buildings. Labour is essentially our biggest expense and we’re bleeding money. I love our staff and they do an extraordinary job, but these are extraordinary times and the whole planet is adapting. I say it needs to be shut down now. Let the sand stay on the roads, let the spring grass grow long. Business as usual may not even happen this year. I say as of tomorrow, only bare essential staff should be still employed.”
Others, like Councillors Alcock, Brian Thompson, and Dan Armour disagreed with the timing and said they needed more information and the ability to digest possible impacts before making such a drastic decision.
“I think we need to give staff, our directors, etc., the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan for each department on how we’re gonna proceed forward. I don’t think we should be basically destroying our government prior to having a full picture of what’s gonna happen over the next two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, etc.,” said Councillor Armour. He also said there is work that could be done in the interim to prepare for when the municipality does begin to offer full services once more.
While others, like Councillors Jonathan Wiebe and Tim Withey, called for decisive action now, rather than waiting for the next council meeting.
“We need to get serious about this now. This is not something that we’re gonna wake up tomorrow and it was a dream, guys… this is a very serious thing, it’s global, it’s only just begun. We’ve got to get prepared today,” said Withey.
“Like any household or any business that’s suffering, the amount of action you take and the stronger and earlier action you take, the better your odds of recovery in the future,” said Wiebe. “And I think we’re going to have to revisit these discussions after we see what steps have been taken because this is a fluid situation, we’re going to revisit what we can get away with, what the bare bones are, week in, week out,” he added, noting that council should meet more frequently without collecting an additional stipend.
In the end, council instructed the CAO to lay off staff, find savings, and report back to another meeting to be broadcast at 6 p.m. on Monday, March 30.
Today’s meeting was broadcast on the Town website as well as Facebook and YouTube. For more on what your councillors and municipal staff had to say you can watch the council meeting at this link.
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