Taking the pulse of Parksville’s public service

It may not be glamorous, but the City of Parksville puts a lot of effort into their own structural needs, says acting mayor Chris Burger.

Busy at work at city hall. Young Parksville employees are part of the city’s ongoing succession planning.

It may not be glamorous, but the City of Parksville puts a lot of effort into their own structural needs, says acting mayor Chris Burger.

With 44 per cent of the city’s full-time staff reaching retirement age over the next 10 years, succession planning is crucial for the organization to function.

Burger said not only does the city stand to lose nearly half it’s workforce in the foreseeable future, but that includes many of the most experienced and knowledgeable.

“You can’t just deal with the loss of a senior staff member after they leave,” he said, adding there needs to be a system in place and “ideally you want some overlap time so staff can train under the senior members.”

“The good news is there’s a whole slew of younger people getting into the public service,” he said, noting no matter what kind of education people have, it still takes a lot of on the job training, especially for senior positions.

The multi-step solution includes making it a desirable organization to work for and keeping their succession plans active and up to date.

Attracting and retaining talent includes competitive salaries, but also other benefits, “and it helps that this is a desirable area for people to live,” Burger said.

But the area’s desirability can hurt the cost of living as the city discovered when they were unable to find a director of engineering and operations for two years.

At the time chief administrative officer Fred Manson said the pay was competitive but other places might be much cheaper to live.

The city is also focusing on the hiring and retention of quality younger employees they can train and develop for top positions in the future. The CAO is constantly looking for good candidates for promotion within the organization.

There are also a lot of talks about the collective responsibility among all local governments to train and retain quality staff and cities often use each other’s human resources.

The local situation is exacerbated by cities across the province and much of the country being in a similar situation, so another solution is looking further afield, as Parksville first did with the recent hiring of Robert Harary from California as the director of engineering and operations.

Unlike Canada, U.S. cities are contracting under much more severe budget constraints, Burger said.

While behind-the-scenes issues do come up with the public occasionally, Burger said people are much more concerned with the services they actually see and use in the community and that’s the balance council and the city are always working on.

“This council and previous councils have made a concerted effort to keep a tight ship,” he said of the city’s relatively small staff.

Although direct comparisons are difficult because of differences in the cities and services they offer, he points out, of six B.C. municipalities of similar population, Parksville had the fewest employees, 62 in March when he checked.

Of the six, Parksville was followed by Sidney with 70, and both Prince Rupert and Dawson Creek had over 100 full-time employees, excluding recreational facilities, which locally are run by the Regional District of Nanaimo.

“It’s a constant battle to maintain the standards people come to expect,” Burger said, adding once people are used to parks looking a certain way or streets being up to a certain standard, it is very hard to reduce services.

He points to details like the little green spaces that new developments contribute to the city, which then have to be maintained by the parks department. As you gain more green spaces at some point you either have to increase the size of the organization or reduce the amount of maintenance.

He said they are currently talking about establishing different levels of priority for parks, so a small residential green strip might not get as much attention as Community Park for example. Such a system would go through council and a public process before implementation.

“We believe in being conservative with people’s taxes, but we get more calls about service complaints than taxation,” he said.

Burger said that while they work to keep tax increases minimal, in his experience people understand costs go up and do want to keep the level of service they have.

“We’re constantly thinking about the people who are least able to pay the taxes, that’s who drive our policy.”

He also said the city’s “use of consultants is a symptom of small government,” pointing to the example that Parksville doesn’t have a traffic expert on staff and has to hire a consultant to provide those services.

The city is also working on areas like the recent installation of a $500,000 computer information system to replace their use of things like index cards, dramatically speeding up the process of digging up old information.

Burger said it sounded expensive at the time but it will save them enough time that it will be a great value.

They are also expecting the results of their development process review to come to council soon and will be looking critically at what they are doing right and wrong and how to improve things, finding further efficiencies.

Harary’s new mass statement of qualifications system for hiring consultants — recently covered in The News — is also expected to bring new efficiencies.

Burger wanted to assure residents the city is planning for the future and open to reviewing it’s own structure and policies and pointed out that one of the benefits of a smaller city is that the staff and councillors are accessible to the public.

He said they work on many small non-glamorous problems every day, both internal and those brought in by residents and encouraged people to continue to interact with the city.

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