Opinion Editorial

Cheap shots for political points

Ralph Cipolla was Orillia's youngest-ever city councillor when he was first elected in 1977. Today, he is serving his second term as a councillor for Ward 2 and while there have been some big gaps in his lengthy tenure of public service, Cipolla is the city's most seasoned politician.

So, it was curious this week to hear the veteran councillor, essentially, criticize city staff, shift blame and refuse to take responsibility for his part in where we find ourselves today.

First off, Cipolla took aim at city staffing levels and the wages they command. A report presented to council committee this week concluded that city staffing levels have increased by nearly 12% over the past six years. In 2011, the city employed 245 people; that figure blossomed to 274 in 2016. In addition, the report determined the city spent almost 22% more for its salaried employees over that same period, with salaries escalating from $17.2 to $21 million.

In one breath, Cipolla commended the city's "excellent staff. They care for our community, they go out of their way." But in the next breath, he said their rising wages are not affordable. "Taxpayers are borrowing money to pay their taxes," he said. "The community can't afford these kinds of wages." He went on to say that the city is paying wages similar to those paid to municipal employees in Toronto, which is laughable.

Coun. Ted Emond was a voice of reason during the debate, pointing out the increases are "not outside of inflation." He is, of course, correct. And let's not forget, the hiring of any new city staffer must be approved by council and Cipolla has been on council during the six years in question.

During that same meeting, Cipolla also criticized staff and the policy of including contingency fees in its tendered projects. "We have too many of these projects that include the 5% or 10% contingency," he said, stressing problems should be reported back to council so elected officials can be more involved in the process. "Council needs to have some say. Contingencies are way overboard."

Again, it was Emond who provided some common sense. "We're all concerned about the amount of money it costs to run our municipality. These (contingencies) give staff the flexibility to move." They also make sense in large projects where there are many factors, outside staff's control, that can lead to multiple, mostly minor, increases in costs that were projected many months earlier.

It is disingenuous of Cipolla to cast aspersions on city staff in either instance. Staff work at council's behest. In the end, elected city councillors make the rules; city staff are there to follow them. It really is that simple. So, if council is not on board with including a contingency fee in tendered projects, they could easily set a policy to modify that component.

When it comes to staff wages, it is a cheap shot indeed to snipe at raises that fall in line with increases in the cost of living. It is also hypocritical when that same report that landed on council's lap also examined salaries of elected officials and noted that the salary of Cipolla and his fellow councillors went from $23,831 in 2011 to $38,125 in 2016 - a 54% spike. That's not to say the wages councillors earn are inordinately high; they are not. But nor are those of city staff.

It's easy to score political points by taking cheap shots at staff. But the reality is, it's the mayor and council that make the rules and set the standard to be followed by staff.

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