BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Trying to find a balance

Columnist Richard Rolke provides some thoughts on the behind the scenes work at Vernon city hall

You can’t be everything to everyone.

That appeared to be the message as administration made pre-2014 budget presentations to Vernon council last week.

“We do not have all of the staff resources to undertake all of this,” said Kim Flick, community development manager, as she outlined the number of initiatives facing her staff of planners.

Among the already outstanding strategic priorities are an airport master plan, an integrated community sustainability plan (as mandated by the province) and an Okanagan Landing neighbourhood centre plan. Bumping to the top of the list, though, are two new items — a parks master plan and a development cost charges review.

The parks master plan has become a must as Vernon will now be responsible for most of the greenspace within the community (it used to be managed by the regional district). There’s a need for Vernon to determine where it wants to head long-term with parks, and DCCs are important because they’re a way of private developers providing funds or land for new public spaces.

It should be pointed out that the planning department has seven positions, but there are currently three vacancies. On top of this, the city’s policy of no new net employees means there won’t be a planner to handle the specific needs of parks, and existing staff will tackle that off the sides of their desks.

“We are not landscape architects,” said Flick, adding that one option is to outsource that duty.

Across town, the pubic works yard is also facing significant challenges given that all departments have been told to try and stay within a 1.8 per cent hike to the budget.

With most of that increase going towards collective agreements with staff, there is little room to meet ballooning operational costs.

“The infrastructure is getting older so that means more emergency repairs in the middle of the night and water main breaks,” said Shirley Koenig, operations manager.

Skyrocketing B.C. Hydro rates have placed pressure on the city’s spray effluent program, while contracts for line painting have soared.

The search for efficiencies are underway, but it was clear that some service level reductions may be necessary to keep within budget and ensure the evolving and unpredictable scope of public works continues.

No specifics were given but a core review earlier this year identified yard waste chipping and clear bag pick-up as potential cuts.

Now there will be some residents who have little sympathy for city staff and the challenges they face. After all, they are well paid and can be seen as wanting to protect their turf.

But the responsibilities they face are significant. They must keep up with the needs and demands of a growing community, and while some of their decisions are debatable, it reinforces the fact that city staff are human just like the rest of us.

Raising concerns shouldn’t be interpreted simply as whining.

It’s administration’s job to tell the politicians that current resources may not be sufficient to absorb new mandates like parks. It’s up to them to state that a cap on public works spending may not be enough to do everything put before them.

No one likes taxes going up (and remember that civic workers pay taxes too), but money also needs to be spent to ensure a municipality operates efficiently and effectively.

In the end, a balance must be found.