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RDCK board finds it hard to say no to hires, despite budget pressures

All eight new hires will add about $750,000 a year to the regional government payroll
The Regional District of Central Kootenay is spending $750,000 on new hires despite needing to make budget cuts. Photo: Pixabay

by John Boivin

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

Whether you’re shopping at the grocery store or running a municipal government, it’s hard to keep from spending more than you want these days.

Regional District of Central Kootenay directors found that turning down staff requests for more bodies was easier said than done, approving eight new staff hires at a budget meeting Feb. 17.

The special budget meeting gave area directors their first detailed look at the regional government books for 2023 – and first opportunity to find savings.

But directors found it difficult to say no to requests from the regional district bureaucracy for more staff, even taking the unusual step of reversing a decision made earlier at the meeting to include a hire they initially rejected.

Each request came with a multi-page report about the need for that hire: to clear work backlog as demands from the public increase; to reduce overtime costs caused by understaffing; to free up staff to be more proactive or efficient; or to avoid a disastrous loss of corporate knowledge if a staff person should get sick or leave.

In a series of split votes, the board approved the hiring of another bylaw enforcement officer, a human resources advisor, an IT administrator, a payroll clerk, two development plan-checking clerks and a development technician for the building department, and a part-time administrative assistant for the environment department.

All eight hires will add about $750,000 a year to the regional government payroll, though three positions will be paid for through increases in building permit fees.

Directors heard that the hires would help address staff burn-out, make hiring easier and improve retention, and provide some backup when events warrant.

“We’ve had cases with only two staff in payroll and one goes away – then the other gets into a car accident yet they are obliged to come into work the next day because they know staff have to get paid,” said chief financial officer Yev Malloff. “That’s an extreme example, but we put in a temporary position to cover that off, and we want to make this position permanent so payroll can function smoothly, make sure people get paid.”

There was some opposition. Directors like Area I’s Andy Davidoff are facing more than 20 per cent tax increases for their constituents.

“It’s not that I’m opposed in principle to these positions – it’s how are we paying for it?” he told his fellow directors. “Our ratepayers can only handle so much taxation.”

The debate over hiring a new $140,000-a-year IT system administrator (the actual salary is $95,000, but the total amount includes benefits and administrative costs) shows how difficult the choice was. The IT department is undergoing massive upgrades and renewal, changes to its operating systems and an increasing need to protect from cyber attacks – all while dealing with day-to-day staff computer problems. The fact that much of the corporate memory about the IT department is held in one person was precarious, said the district’s top official.

“We have a knowledge set that is very needed in one individual, and as far as I’m concerned, that is a risk. That is the crux of this ask,” said RDCK chief administrative officer Stuart Horn. “We have one person who is core to that department, and they are doing the bulk of this very technical work, and I think that is the biggest risk that we have.”

The board approved that hire.

Others hiring issues weren’t so difficult to wrestle with. The backlog is growing for building permits approvals and building inspections – so the three staff hired will ease that wait list and even provide a source of revenue for the RD. These positions will be paid for by the building permit increases.

The most unusual hire was for a new $124,000 human resources advisor (actual salary is $86,000). The first request to come before the board, the hire was handily voted down by directors. But after making a series of more hires, directors realized they needed the position after all.

“Going through the course of these motions, seeing how much work is being put on the payroll in the last hour, it has become quite clear the support for this department is quite necessary,” said City of Nelson rep Keith Page.

The plea worked and the board took the unusual step of revisiting the decision, reversing the outcome and approving the hire.

The RDCK employs about 305 full- and part-time workers. In comparison, the RD of East Kootenay, with about the same area and population, has about 76 staff. The RD of Kootenay Boundary employs about 193 people. However, it’s hard to make direct comparisons between local governments, as each offer different slates of services to its taxpayers.