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Whistler municipal payroll under scrutiny post-Games

Wage increases designed to combat labour unrest before Olympics

Pique, Nov. 10, 2011

Whistler's top administrator is making less than his two predecessors - a sign that the municipality is tackling its payroll expenses head on, according to Mayor Ken Melamed.

"At the top salary, the direction of the CAO salary has been in a downward trend over the last two CAO (hires)," he said. "That's an indication of response and adjustment."

Once hired, their salaries increase as per the terms of their contract, which is consistent with industry standards and not tied to the internal staff pay band grid system.

With the election spotlight shining on municipal wages and benefits, which are the biggest expense on the municipal books after GST payments, Pique looks at the multi-million payroll in its third installment of municipal budget stories in the lead up to the election.

In the 2011 budget, payroll accounts for almost $25 million, or roughly 42 per cent of the municipal operating budget.

Three years ago the Long-Term Financial Plan flagged a $1.6 million increase to the municipal payroll. That was the second biggest single factor, after the $4 million increase to reserve contributions, adding pressure to the budget shortfall, which prompted year over year tax increases from 2008 to 2011 totalling 19 per cent.

Mayor Melamed calls it the "Olympic labour peace contract."

Whistler, he said, did not initiate that.

But because Whistler bases its salary increases on six Metro Vancouver municipalities, including the District of West Vancouver, the District of North Vancouver, the City of North Vancouver and the City of Coquitlam, the contract for municipal employees rose in the years around the 2010 Games.

"This was a labour contract that was purposefully negotiated before and through the Games so there was no chance of labour unrest leading up to the Games," said the mayor.

The year over year increases applied to both managers and staff, based on the CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) contract negotiations. Whistler has just a small portion of CUPE employees, specifically the wastewater treatment workers and the utilities employees.

For the hundreds of other municipal employees there is an employee handbook.

In a previous interview with Pique , Denise Wood, director of human resources for the RMOW said:

"The employee handbook is not a contract but it is an agreement. What a lot of people don't realize is that every single employee that we hired on signs an employment agreement with the municipality, whether they are non-union or union."

The municipality considers the employee handbook similar to a collective agreement.

With the Games now behind Whistler the mayor said the municipality is looking at ways to reduce costs.

With the addition of cuts in the latest service review, Whistler will be dropping 27 full time equivalent positions from the payroll. Many are part-time positions and many will be lost through attrition as employees retire and replacements aren't hired. The municipality is continuing to review its organization, looking to streamline the management structure moving forward.

"We are now in a position of looking at how we might be able to mitigate the costs or reduce costs in a responsible, respectful, judicious process that still enables us to deliver the services at the level people want," said the mayor.

Rolling back public sector wages he added is easy to say but not as easy to do.

"Correction in the public sector happens at a slower pace than the private sectors, that's just a fact," he said.

In August council threw out the old city benchmarks for six new cities as the guidepost for council salaries.

The new benchmark cities are based on daily population, annual budget and employee count and they include: Port Moody, White Rock, the district of Maple Ridge and Langley.

Based on those cities, Whistler council is making more money that its Lower Mainland counterparts. That's why it voted to keep its salaries the same this year.

It is not clear if staff salaries will be moved to the new Lower Mainland benchmark in the years to come.