LETHBRIDGE: More than 20 new city hall jobs will soon be under the microscope, after heated debate and a close vote at Tuesday's city council meeting.
Alderman Faron Ellis tried to fast-track a decision on cutting 24.5 unfilled positions slated for hiring in 2011, in the hopes of trimming the budget for taxpayers. But a slim five to four split voted the motion down. Council will now debate the issue at the next finance committee meeting - slated for sometime in March. Ellis said it's not fast enough.
"I just wanted us to begin the process of this municipal government doing what all governments across the country and throughout the western world are doing, which is recognizing and dealing with the new fiscal realities that citizens want them to recognize and deal with," said Ellis. "That's what the last election was about and that's what I campaigned on."
Ellis said the decision to drop these yet-to-be hired jobs wouldn't necessarily be permanent. If a department thought the new position was important enough, they could come back before council during budget deliberations to try and get renewed approval.
The list of new positions in question is worth more than $1.3 million of the city's operating budget. Roughly $650,000 of that total comes from taxpayer money. Council approved the positions back in 2008, before the recession hit.
Aldermen Jeff Coffman, Liz Iwaskiw and Joe Mauro sided with Ellis, saying it was time this council faced reality and tightened the belt. The slim majority of councillors - Ryan Parker, Bridget Mearns, Jeff Carlson, Tom Wickersham and Mayor Rajko Dodic - argued it would be more prudent to wait until the next finance meeting to weigh the full impact of cutting these jobs. Dodic led the "no" side of the debate, saying the cuts are too aggressive.
"If we want to stagnate the city, let's just put money into sewers, water, sidewalks and roads," Dodic told Country 95 News shortly after the debate ended. He said he's frustrated by the idea that cuts are an instant fix, and playfully demonstrated just how far that line of thinking could go. "If that's what people want, we can do that. If people don't want transit service, which we subsidize to almost 70 per cent, that's a lot of money the taxpayers subsidize. We don't need to have it. Libraries, do we need those? I don't know."
The 24.5 positions at stake included a roughly $80,000 salary and benefits package for a web developer that would assist with the city's yet-to-be-launched new website, about $47,000 for a new street sweeper position, close to $90,000 toward an event marketing and sales coordinator for the ENMAX, and five new frontline police officer spots - worth about $300,000.
Lethbridge Regional Police Chief Tom McKenzie sat in the front row as council debate wore on. He said he needs three new officers just to keep up with city growth, while the two additional positions would expand the Special Operations Unit. In the end, he took the decision in stride - saying he's prepared if council moves to tighten his budget.
"It's about what do we do and how do we afford what we're doing," he said. "We've made these arguments before and we'll make 'em again - there's certainly no problem around that. We just have to make sure that everybody's happy as we go forward."
Alderman Ellis says he's definitely not happy with council's decision. He says after two finance committee meetings have already been cancelled for this month, there's no guarantee the meeting in March is final. And by that time, the momentum may be gone.
"Politicians would rather delay than make tough decisions. But I didn't get elected to delay," he told Country 95 News. "Governme