North Huron, Morris-Turnberry to dissolve shared department - Feb. 9, 2017
BY DENNY SCOTT
The largest component of North Huron and Morris-Turnberry’s shared service project, the public works department, has been disbanded.
A confidential letter from North Huron was discussed by Morris-Turnberry Council on Jan. 31 as part of an update on the project which saw Morris-Turnberry approve a motion, with regrets, that will see the joint public works department disbanded on Feb. 17. On Feb. 2, North Huron issued a press release explaining that Jeff Molenhuis, the senior staff member in charge of the department, would be retained by North Huron to head up its own Public Works Department.
Molenhuis tendered his resignation, effective Feb. 17, from the joint public works department earlier this month.
In the release it was explained that, as a result of an assessment of the first fiscal year of the program, staff discovered the savings that had been anticipated in the program couldn’t be realized under the current model.
“The assessment started earlier in the new year,” North Huron’s Chief Administrative Officer Sharon Chambers said in an interview with The Citizen. “We received the first billing [from Morris-Turnberry] at the end of December and we had to analyze what had gone into that.”
Chambers explained that, due to the model that was employed in the pilot project, the savings that Morris-Turnberry and North Huron had hoped to realize had not occured.
“Looking at the operating model... we were having some struggles as it was a pilot project and an unprecedented approach to shared services,” she said. “Wrapping up our first year of review, we did conclude that because of the model we chose, it really was difficult to find the efficiencies we had hoped to achieve.”
Molenhuis said the amount of reporting that was necessary prevented him from being able to recognize efficiencies.
“The burden of the work and the dual reports that were necessary didn’t allow me to focus on the long-term planning aspect of the job,” he said in an interview with The Citizen. “That’s what brought me back to North Huron. There is a great need to define work programs and build systems with long-term planning.”
While Morris-Turnberry, in light of the decision, had stated they would continue to share the building department with North Huron, Chambers said the department was structured in the same ‘non-traditional’ way that the public works department had been.
“In a traditional arrangement, you see a shared service as one municipality leading and billing the other across the border,” she explained. “This is one where municipalities retained their employees and billed services back and forth across the border. It was very complex, administratively, and created a lot of administrative burden.”
She said the fact that each municipality had maintained its own staff in case the program didn’t work and that decision, in hindsight, “may have been a barrier to a very efficient shared service program.”
Molenhuis, who was brought on for his engineering experience, among other reasons, will be staying in North Huron and one of his first responsibilities will be to provide a report on how North Huron Public Works could be restructured to accommodate his position and salary.
“We did renegotiate his contract as a result of him staying,” Chambers said. “It was desirable to go out and try and share him with a neighbouring municipality to afford this expense, but we do recognize the need for his qualifications still exists. In two-to-three years time, we need to focus on infrastructure management for long-term sustainability specifically with our road network and water and sewer infrastructure.”
Chambers said Molenhuis will be able to provide detailed information on infrastructure and, while it will be an additional investment for the municipality to make, she said there is a significant risk in not sustaining existing infrastructure or spending wisely.
“We need detailed asset management plans for funding opportunities in the future,” she said. “Looking at additional costs and finding operational efficiencies to offset those costs will be part of building long-term sustainability from a staff perspective.”
As far as feedback on existing North Huron services are concerned, Chambers said that once Molenhuis concludes his time as director of the shared services public works department on Feb. 17, he will be looking at a long-term review of the department. That will include options to address ratepayer concerns.
“I don’t think he has had a chance to analyze operations as to what the work plan is going to be going forward,” she said. “One of the things that came to our attention when we blended crews and moved expertise around was that there are different levels of services in areas that wasn’t documented. We have to work in that regard to formalize our level of service so council can understand it and so we can communicate the expectation for levels of service.”
Molenhuis said ratepayers won’t see much change on the ground right away.
“We still have an operational mandate, and, certainly from an operations perspective, it will be business as usual,” he said. “We’re going to analyze what efforts are being done over the year, and make that part of the plans going forward.”
Molenhuis said there was a lot of ‘framework’ that needed to be developed in North Huron and that the steps he could take so far have been good ones.
He went on to say there is a lot of work to do in North Huron to develop work programs within the municipality.
“My focus is to stabilize and build into the future to help manage our assets and opportunities,” he said. “We need information from the public, like with the recent garbage and recycling survey, to develop work programs to meet the needs of the public.”
For Molenhuis’ part, he said that pursuing the position with North Huron was an opportunity to continue to pursue a “unique opportunity.”
“We’re going to try to build out with long-term planning that didn’t seem to be here before,” he said.
IMPACT ON MORRIS-TURNBERRY
The announcement of the disbandment came shortly before Morris-Turnberry council accepted Molenhuis’ resignation.
Council also accepted the resignations of Fire Department of North Huron Chief David Sparling and Fire Prevention Officer James Marshall who both were part of the shared services initiative for fire prevention services.
The announcement also followed the presentation of Morris-Turnberry’s draft budget which included documentation on the shared services project showing that both municipalities had spent tens of thousands of dollars more than they would have had the project not been pursued.
Mayor Paul Gowing said, in an interview with The Citizen after the announcement, Morris-Turnberry’s representatives on the shared services committee expected the announcement, but it was not exactly a welcome one.
“We were notified they were stepping away,” he said. “We were left to wonder what we do as the other partner, and this forced us to carry forward and look to rehire to fill the position.
“It was disappointing in that we are trying to do the right thing and recognize efficiencies, but we didn’t get it implemented,” Gowing said. “We weren’t far enough on to realize savings. The project was still in the preliminary stages, so we were still having costs of implementation. We have to get things in place to get further down the road to see the savings and we weren’t able to get there.”
A press release from Morris-Turnberry sent on Monday announced that Wray Wilson, the retired Director of Public Works from Howick Township had been named Interim Director of Public Works until a permanent replacement is recruited.
As for Morris-Turnberry’s director of public works, Gowing said they wouldn’t be looking for someone like Molenhuis, who will bring a strong engineering background to the job, but the hiring process for his replacement wouldn’t dissuade applicants with similar experience.
“We certainly would entertain applicants that would have an engineering designation, but we’re not specifically looking for an engineer,” he said. “There will be a description for that position going out very soon and it will be along the lines of the job description that fits Morris-Turnberry.”
While there was little discussion regarding the dissolution at the Morris-Turnberry Council meeting, council did make some decisions based on the fact that the program was changing and Molenhuis was no longer in charge of it. Primarily, a landfill operations report that requested the action of council was deferred until Molenhuis’ replacement could be put in place.
“I would have our new hire, along with collaboration from people working at the site, work together,” Councillor John Smuck said. “I don’t think this is a job of the director, but a collaboration of the people at the site doing the work.”
Gowing said if there was to be a change in how the site is managed, having staff work on it would be a good idea.