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Report targets council to improve efficiency

Town councillors need look no further than themselves to find the best way to improve municipal operations.

“Better governance,” said the consultant hired to conduct an operational review, “appears to hold the greatest opportunity for improvement.”

David Berger of Western Management Consultants said it was the “number one issue” when he summarized the review to council.

Among his recommendations, council must address “strained” relations with senior staff and work cooperatively with them, improve communication, be less emotional and stop springing surprises.

Staff should recognize that new councillors need “to come up to speed” on issues and they should provide more information, more alternatives and more detail in their reports, he said.

Including this advice, Berger compiled 25 recommendations to improve Town functions and presented them Jan. 23, but the full report has not been made public.

Personnel department understaffed

Aside from governance, his most important finding was that the human resources department needs more staff. The Town could avoid spending an estimated $133,000 per year by hiring a health and safety staff person, he said. The Town needs a “dedicated resource” to oversee health and safety issues or risks being audited by the Ministry of Labour.

“Either take action now or it will be a huge emergency and it will be three or four years of hell in dealing with the ministry,” he said

He found other areas where some savings could be had in some departments where “additional capacity” may exist — meaning some staff could handle more duties, or that job responsibilities could be tweaked so they function more smoothly, but “there’s really no glaring inefficiencies.”

‘This is a lean and mean town’

Berger, and co-consultant Liuba Mamonova, chose four other Ontario municipalities to establish benchmarks with which to compare Fort Erie operations.

“In general, we found a good chunk of resourcing levels are below those of benchmarked communities . . . either below, the same or in the range,” he said. “That’s pretty impressive. I’ve been benchmarking for many, many years and this is a lean and mean town.”

How many municipal reviews had he done, asked councillor John Hill.

“Dozens,” said Berger.

Fort Erie compared to others

The consultants used Aurora, Belleville, Georgina and Orillia to provide benchmark standards. Factors in their selection were population and density, land area, growth rate, proximity to border, cottage community, history of amalgamation and gaming industry.

Over the summer and fall, they reviewed more than 200 background documents, toured facilities, interviewed 31 staff from all departments, interviewed council members, met with members of the public, and read blogs and websites.

Hill’s first order of business

The $91,000 project got rolling during the first meeting of this council term in December 2010 when Hill called for the operational review to make good on one of his campaign promises.

It was controversial from the start and set the tone of the relationship between staff and the new councillors, Hill, Paul Collard and Don Lubberts.

Chief administrative officer Harry Schlange opposed spending money on the review that he estimated would cost $150,000. Management was Schlange’s game in the executive offices of IBM Canada and other major corporations including General Motors, he told council then. Town operations are constantly being assessed for savings. Council even overruled his recommendation on which consultant to hire and chose the more expensive proposal from Western Management.

Schlange left the Town in the summer for greener pastures in the non-profit health services sector in Ottawa.

Apple cart remains upright

After Berger presented his findings to council, Hill said he was “pleased” with the report.
“The motion that was brought forward to conduct an operational review was done by myself and at the time that I brought that motion forward, I felt that it was an investment we were making in the Town of Fort Erie to gain efficiencies and to maximize all the benefits that we have within the Town of Fort Erie.

“I’m pleased the review done by yourself was not one that caused us a whole lot of angst because of some glaring inefficiencies and that the concerns you identified as opportunity areas are areas that can move the Town of Fort Erie forward and not do it in a way that it totally upsets the apple cart, moves it forward in a very efficient and proactive way.

“So from that perspective, certainly for myself, I’m glad we invested into the operational review despite that there might be some critics out there with regards to that, but I am certainly pleased that we did invest in this and that we didn’t invest into it the total amount that we budgeted and that we found the study to be worthwhile.”

All members of council praised the report and were eager to start implementing the recommendations, unanimously passing a motion to that effect.

Mayor Doug Martin reminded council that he opposed conducting the review because it wasn’t going to find anything significant.

“We have a very lean corporation and every time there’s a change on council . . . they want to change the world as well,” he said. “Then we come here and find that we have a lot of good people doing a lot of good work with very little credit and a lot of heartache. They work their magic day in and day out to make sure we’re on the right track.”

He said many of the recommendations make sense and some will be easy to implement while others pose a challenge.

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