Commentary

The Elephant in the Equation

While there is no shortage of commentary about the City's need to increase revenues or payments from other levels of government, there is no budgetary consideration being given to expense control.

By Jim Sweetman
Published November 25, 2012

Like every story, there are two sides to every equation. One of the most important equations for the people at City Hall is the financial one relating expenses and revenues. It's no different for citizens or businesses. If you spend more money than you make, bad things happen.

The staff and Councillors at City Hall have been working hard to find ways to increase revenues. Some want us to sell the naming rights to all kinds of public assets. Others want to sell advertising space along our roads. A new downtown casino, a new football stadium, a greatly expanded employment growth district at the airport could all contribute new revenue.

A consultant suggested things like increasing parking fees, increasing recreation fees, selling off a city-owned golf course. It's even been suggested we raise taxes an additional 1%. Still others judge our problems are the result of the provincial government downloading their responsibilities on to us. They feel lobbying them holds the promise of a huge increase in revenue.

Hamilton Civic League Finance Committee

At the Hamilton Civic League, we have created a Finance Committee to review the City's publicly available financial information. Our purpose is to identify opportunities to balance the financial equation and share the findings with people across the city.

Our mission - and our hope - is that by providing insight and understanding into the key issues in our city, more people will become involved - and active - in municipal affairs.

It seems to us the staff and Councillors at City Hall are forgetting about an entire side of the equation - the side of the equation that lists the expenses.

If we are not making as much money, we should not be spending as much money.

Salaries, Wages and Benefits

Here's where the elephant comes in. The elephant at City Hall is the amount of money being spent on salaries, wages and benefits - which includes pensions - for the employees who work for the City.

In 2002, the salaries and wages were $354 million. In 2011, the salary and wages were $487 million. That's an increase of 37.6% or 4.2% per year.

Salaries and wages also determine benefits costs. In 2002, the benefits costs were $33 million. In 2011, the benefits costs were $137 million. That's an increase of 310.8% or 34.5% per year.

From 2002 to 2011, inflation increased by 20%. If the City's salaries and wages had only increased at the 2.2% annual rate like inflation, the City would have spent a total of $462 million less from 2002 to 2011. Likewise, the City would have spent $429 million less on benefits. That's a combined total of $891 million.

These increases, much more than the rate of inflation, would have gone a long way towards renewing the city's infrastructure and improving social services supports for those most vulnerable and in need.

'Huge Budget Pressure'

Recently the city manager sounded the alarm about the deteriorating infrastructure in the city estimated to need $200 million a year. He claimed a problem with the "city's ability to manage ongoing and growing financial challenges." He suggested the city was getting shortchanged by both Ottawa and the province.

But the provincial government has a fiscal crisis of its own with a record deficit. The federal government too is struggling to balance its budget and reduce its deficit.

City Council recently voted to pay $3.35 million during the first six months of 2013 to cover the costs of social services, emergency services for those most in need, previously paid by the provincial government. Our City's Treasury Manager stated: "It's going to be a huge budget pressure."

Assuming twenty business days per month, City Hall spends that amount in less than two business days on salaries and wages.

Don't Rely on Growth

Rather than suggesting those most vulnerable in our city are a "huge budget pressure", the city must start to deal with the elephant in the equation.

Historically, governments have relied on growth to solve their problems. More people, new development and new businesses have all generated new tax revenues to offset expenses. Those times are over. Since 2002, Hamilton's population has grown at an average of 1% per year.

Knowing the problem is halfway to solving it. The Civic League is working hard to understand the City's financial equation and will work just as hard to propose solutions.

City Hall simply cannot continue to ignore the ballooning employee costs on the expense side of the financial equation.

Jim Sweetman is currently the Chair of the Finance Committee of the Hamilton Civic League. He is a retired Chemical Engineer. He has lived in Dundas, Ontario since 2006.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 01:39:20

I've been calling for a house cleaning of city staff for years. They seem to be the first to throw up red tape on good development like the Hamilton Grand and completely derelict when enforcing bylaws properly and building proper infrastructure.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 06:43:58

Interesting project, though potentiallly Sisyphean. Remember to incorporate transparency and accountability measures into your own calculations, so that any analysis is reviewable. Absent that, any conclusions or prescriptions are more easily dismissed.

Related note: Can HCL please try to announce meetings more than 24 hours ahead of time? Council can manage it, after all. I've wanted to come out to a meeting but in the last two years it has seemed like ambush after ambush.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 09:56:41

I'd be interested to know what Jim Sweetman proposes to do in order to get salaries and benefits expenditures under control? Layoffs? Wage cuts? I'm all for trimming fat, but any meaningful cuts have to start at the top so they won't result in creating more people that require social service supports.

There's precious little context about the burden that those benefits costs represent, too. Is the 300% increase attributable to any specific change?

So what to do, HCL? Hold the line on the Police budget? Make councillors and city hall staff take a pay cut? Cut benefits for all new employees so that even more Hamiltonians are exposed to the vagaries of our economy?

Comment edited by Borrelli on 2012-11-26 11:01:14

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 17:24:24 in reply to Comment 83203

Personally I think holding the line on the police budget would be a good start.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted November 28, 2012 at 13:11:42 in reply to Comment 83220

The Police Budget is out of control. And worst still, council (your elected representative) have very little control over it as the police services board can appeal its budget request to an arbitrator. Thats democracy for you.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 10:19:55 in reply to Comment 83203

You've identified a potential peril of the project.

While HCL's awareness work may be apolitical, and the self-professed vision of the group is that of an "all-inclusive, non-partisan civic league," any budget exercise is inherently political. Can it be carried off without branding the host org as an advocacy org with a specific subjective bias?

Mind the 90% of that iceberg, Cap'n.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 15:07:21 in reply to Comment 83206

Even solutions which are purely forward-looking (i.e. agree to cap salary increases at inflation) would be better than doing nothing, and without the potential need to resort to layoffs or wage cuts.

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By j (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 10:06:03

Good for you, though the last guy who criticized labour got a frosty reception. Anyone who wants the city to thrive should be just as vigilant about labour costs and union tactics as people here are about developer plans. A city job is still very often a bloated, inefficient, poorly managed sinecure. Unions often protect the worst employees, and for what?

I'm not saying this to start another union war - I support unions but they need to allow people to get fired for doing bad work, and to ditch the class war rhetoric in the public sector.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 10:46:33

I'm not saying this to start another union war

Really? Because there is not a single line in that article saying the increased cost is due to unions.

Actually there is very little breakdown of the information at all. Where did the costs increase most, what jobs, what level? Who got the money, workers or managers? Why the large increase in benefit costs? More questions than answers provided by this article.

We could fire all the workers to save $460 million sure, but if we're still going to blow a billion on Aerotropolis what is the point? Actually I’m sort of missing the point of this whole article. We spend too much on staff… okay. What does the HCL suggest we do about it? Or is that a powder keg they don’t want to touch? If not, I see very little use for the HCL, standing on the sidelines and saying “This is wrong” is simple and this city has enough participants in that pastime.

Does the HCL support the types of wars on the civil service and their unions we have seen south of the border? The open-endedness of the piece makes me wonder.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 11:06:30 in reply to Comment 83207

Where did the costs increase most, what jobs, what level? Who got the money, workers or managers? Why the large increase in benefit costs? More questions than answers provided by this article.

Exactly. I find it very worrying that the HCL decides to focus on salaries and benefits when mega-projects like Aerotropolis & the Stadium will monopolize so much public money over the coming years.

If there is a serious effort to link HCL's ongoing work (very focused on the Aerotropolis, with inexplicable forays into fluoridation) with this new bent on fiscal restraint, then maybe the Civic League should concentrate efforts to scuttle those two very costly mega-projects and leave people's incomes and benefits alone.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 15:09:19 in reply to Comment 83208

I think the reason they're looking at these expenses is because they feel that no one else is. Telling them not to look at them and to look elsewheere defeats the purpose of this exercise.

Moreover, it doesn't look like they have a conculsion as to the cause of the spending problem, or even if there is one, their premise at present seems simply to be "our salaries and wages are increasing higher than inflation, and we should look into that".

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By j (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 12:39:07 in reply to Comment 83208

ha ha - 'I find it very worrying that anyone would ever even discuss this topic'. That's TASTY logic.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted November 27, 2012 at 09:45:38 in reply to Comment 83210

J, if you're going to quote me, at least quote me properly--it's really not that hard, and it'll strengthen YOUR tenuous grasp on logic.

My point still stands: there are currently two mega-projects that will siphon millions of public dollars into speculators masquerading as profit-making corporations.

Whine on about employee wages and benefits all you'd like, but it doesn't change the fact that wages in Canada have been stagnant since the late 70s, a period in which the Canadian economy grew more than 70%.

Meanwhile, the share of private dough going to profits has been on the rise, while workers' share has declined to its lowest level on record.

Which is to say, we can discuss this topic all you'd like, J, but the reality is that wages aren't the main problem.

Worrying about the wages and benefits of thousands of fellow citizens while we a few let rent-seekers raid the cupboard is a red herring.

Comment edited by Borrelli on 2012-11-27 09:46:35

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By LF (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 12:33:59

If my memory serves, the largest increases in wage in the last few budgets were all unionized positions - HCL will need to take that into account. While a great idea, it is difficult/impossible to renegotiate a collective bargaining agreement at a lower wage/less benefits.

It should be noted that the majority of wage increases come from unionized positions. The non-unionized positions typically are part-time, or positions that do not include benefits, and at a lesser wage rate than the unionized positions.

I'm not trying to demonize the unions - there are people that truly deserve the rate of pay and benefits that they receive - however the sad truth is that it is extremely difficult to fire someone that is in a unionized position, so often they are shuffled into a position where they do the least damage, and ultimately, the least work.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 19:56:21 in reply to Comment 83209

it is extremely difficult to fire someone that is in a unionized position

Not true, it just takes work companies and particularly (bad) managers and/or supervisors just don't want to do. I’ve been involved in successfully firing both CAW and ATU union members and I wouldn’t call it “extremely difficult” it is more like due diligence.

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By shaddupsevenup (registered) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 19:51:57 in reply to Comment 83209

That's interesting. I'm a member of CUPE 5167 and in our last contract negotiations, we got zero for our first year, and 1.9% every year after that. Everyone I know in the private sector got bigger increases than me.I have six managers over me. My supervisor was on the Sunshine list. I'm just wondering where you got your info from?

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By Give me a break (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 12:47:42

Asking Government to stop growing exponentially is like asking Cancer to do the same, ain’t going to happen. The downward spiral will continue until collapse. This much is clear from all around the world.

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By arienc (registered) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 13:03:29 in reply to Comment 83211

The answer is not necessarily more governance, or less governance...it is Better governance. And it's not just government for which exponential growth can be equated to cancer - our entire economic system, including both public and private domain is based on this phenomenon.

As for the cost of salaries, one of the biggest societal factors is the escalating cost of leadership, and dearth of those skills throughout the population. Why would a rational person hold themselves accountable to such scrutiny (including that of groups like the HCL) in the public sector, when they can be compensated far more highly for their skills in the private sector? The result is that the most capable leaders end up with private businesses, and we, the public end up having to make do with those not as dynamic or capable of rising up to the level of our ambitions.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 13:42:35

Andrew Dreschel, Mar 16 2011:

"In the 2010 budget, the cost of employee wages, benefits and pensions accounted for 47 per cent of all city expenses.... Bill Tufts, a Hamilton employee benefits and pension consultant, says public sector pay hikes cost far more than most people realize....Tufts concludes the city’s finances are in a precarious state with expenses rising more rapidly then revenue, largely because of skyrocketing employee salaries and benefits."

http://www.thespec.com/opinion/columns/article/502317--wages-and-benefits-strangling-city-budgets

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 13:49:12 in reply to Comment 83214

A little digging: Bill Tufts is the founder of Westdale-based advocacy/awareness group Fair Pensions for All.

http://fairpensionsforall.net

http://www.lfpress.com/2012/10/04/some-ontario-municipalities-could-be-headed-for-bankruptcy-report



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By Dane (registered) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 16:59:54

I didnt realize there was so much displeasure with the Civic League ...

Uhm, in regards to wages, my feeling having met several employees during my time is that I end up having a difficult time reconciling the value for money ratio. Too much money for low outcomes. In some ways I think that the wages don't reflect a comparable market rate in that they are much too high, having seen positions posted. I wouldn't mind if it was a little higher to be an incentive to garner quality talent but I just don't see that happening. It seems as though a good tactic would be to higher younger people who are hungry for experience and full of imagination. I am sure many can put forward an example of municipal workers not working but instead is there a way to look to optimizing their positions, with a touch of accountability? Does this lie with the City Manager?

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By randomguy (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 17:36:44

I think a good breakdown would be how salaries and benefits have changed for police and firefighters versus the rest of the city's employees, both unionized and non-unionized. That may be the real elephant in the room.

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By shaddupsevenup (registered) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 19:54:44 in reply to Comment 83221

I whole-heartedly aree.

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By Tortuga (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 18:42:41

This exercise will hopefully enrich the conversation around the 2014 Budget... which will be unfolding this time next year. Plenty of time to build a disy-cutter.

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By Tortuga (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 18:43:59 in reply to Comment 83224

Er, "daisy-cutter". Escusame.

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By mainstreet (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 21:00:10

Hats off to the Hamilton Civic League. Information that is free of spin would be a most welcome change.

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By Euclid (anonymous) | Posted November 26, 2012 at 21:33:43

"The Hamilton Civic League will attempt to conduct a community-wide survey every second year to establish a set of common values and priorities. We will then compare the voting records of our councillors to these widely held community values and priorities to assess the decisions made by City government. The results will be posted in the form of a councillor report card as a measure of accountability."

The data sets for the 2010 Hamilton Civic League’s Values & Priorities Survey suggest a survey of eight wards, five of which (1-4 & 8) dominate the sample. Some might see that as a less than representative survey. How's the 2012 study coming along?

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By Hamilton Civic League (anonymous) | Posted November 27, 2012 at 09:32:44 in reply to Comment 83233

We are working with McMaster University to plan and conduct a more comprehensive community survey for 2013. We believe information collected in 2013 will be more relevant to the 2014 municipal election. As a volunteer driven organization, our ability to survey every ward is directly related to available volunteer resources. We hope partnerships with McMaster and Mohawk will provide a sufficient number of volunteers, however we welcome your assistance as well.

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By Euclid (anonymous) | Posted November 27, 2012 at 10:23:20 in reply to Comment 83247

Glad to hear.

IMHO, it would be ideal to have two comparably rigorous surveys so that instructive comparisons can be made. (One data set is a fixed point; two sets suggest a trajectory.)

Will be in touch.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 27, 2012 at 17:40:20

I read this a few days ago in a private forward, and found myself nodding my head but also faced with the same questions as Kiely and Borelli. Are they talking about employees or management? Growing departments or growing paycheques? And which department? What we need is a proper cost breakdown, not just totals.

The other important question to ask is how valid 2002 really was as a baseline, only a year after amalgamation...

Is bureaucracy growing? Yes, and it's exacting big costs. Blaming paycheques doesn't make a lot of sense here, as Borelli mentioned wages for most have been stagnating for decades. Blaming the public sector and unions also falls short, since the problem is just as evident in plenty of private, union-free corporations.

So what in the hell is happening? Two factors - a general rise in bureacratic complexity - new rules/processes are being introduced faster than old ones are being repealed as public and private entities try to circumvent each other's goals. At the same time, systems are also being centralized which promises cuts to administration costs, but instead grants institutions more clout, less accountability and therefore much more ability to draw in funds. While they sound contradictory, one need only look at Amalgamation (or any monopoly) to see how easily a bureaucracy can become bigger and more complex at the same time, and find no net savings as a result.

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By j (anonymous) | Posted November 27, 2012 at 22:10:30 in reply to Comment 83272

ok, fair enough. But Borrelli listed these same concerns while in the same mouthful suggesting we shouldn't bother having the conversation while the AEGD and stadium were being proposed. So I'd like your questions answered as well but I suspect the motivation behind the questions.

Let's let the HCL do this honourable exercise and then let's have the conversation about what are realistic and what are unrealistic salary expectations for the civil service.

Apt topic given current police ask of 5.2% increase.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted November 28, 2012 at 11:33:10 in reply to Comment 83274

Don't twist my words, J; I said that I thought the AEGD and the stadium were bigger fish and since the HCL has made the AEGD their cause célèbre, then perhaps they should focus their limited resources on that topic.

The HCL can engage in this "honourable exercise", and citizens like me are similarly free to tell them they are doing it lazily, without context, and ultimately barking up the wrong tree.

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By j (anonymous) | Posted November 28, 2012 at 12:02:58 in reply to Comment 83283

I'm not stopping you, I'm just calling you out for using a bullshit non sequitur to argue against the very idea of questioning salary increases.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted November 28, 2012 at 12:51:05 in reply to Comment 83286

You're the only one handling bullshit, my friend.

All of my comments are recorded above--your argument would be a lot stronger if you could (accurately) paste my words as evidence, but given that I never "argue[d] against the very idea of questioning salary increases" (and even asked a number of questions myself), I'll end this diversion and conclude:

The first step to people treating the issue of salaries and benefits seriously, is asking serious questions. Jim Sweetman's piece does nothing of the sort, presenting a dog's breakfast of context-less information and then laying the blame for the city's financial woes on "ballooning employee costs."

This approach is lazy, misguided, and is a far cry from the kind of serious discussion about finances that people like J claim to desire.

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By j (anonymous) | Posted November 28, 2012 at 13:51:46 in reply to Comment 83287

Here's your comment in full:

"Exactly. I find it very worrying that the HCL decides to focus on salaries and benefits when mega-projects like Aerotropolis & the Stadium will monopolize so much public money over the coming years.

If there is a serious effort to link HCL's ongoing work (very focused on the Aerotropolis, with inexplicable forays into fluoridation) with this new bent on fiscal restraint, then maybe the Civic League should concentrate efforts to scuttle those two very costly mega-projects and leave people's incomes and benefits alone."

in sum: let's not bother with this because the AEGD and stadium will also cost a lot of money.

This is a meaningless and disingenuous non sequitur.

The rest of your comments have been attacks on the HCL, which is equally disingenuous, for two reasons:

1. this is a mission statement, pointing out a 35% increase in salaries and seeking to look into it. There is nothing lazy or misguided or unserious about that; they may find the reason is exactly what you say. But you are trying to pre-empt this very process on what I think is a Torquemada style refusal to allow this question to be asked.

2. attacking the HCL for doing this as you have done now a number of times is silly. You should also attack RTH for publishing this. HCL like RTH is a collection of individuals trying to do good things for the city.

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By Mission Creep (anonymous) | Posted November 28, 2012 at 10:35:30

"...a values-based grassroots movement that started with 100 people and reached just under 15,000 within a year, changing the face of local democracy..."

http://www.raisethehammer.org/wots/306/guelph_civic_league:_the_story_of_a_grassroots_movement_that_changed_a_city

One hopes. Or at least reform the public consultation arm of the Immutable League of Perpetual Incumbency.

http://www.thespec.com/opinion/columns/article/843874--opinion-the-elephant-in-the-equation

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