'Midland is going to hate us'; so town hiring freeze denied

If the drama channel doesn’t fill your entertainment needs, the new season of Midland council might have you covered.

A long evening of the first regular meeting of council for the newly elected term took place this week, extending so far that the deputy mayor nearly lost his voice from speaking.

It was a night with many items on the docket and thorough discussion, capped off by a motion for which notice was given from Coun. Bill Meridis asking council to implement a hiring freeze until after the early February regular meeting for any new positions and current positions which could become vacant; a motion that was defeated in recorded vote 2-7 with Meridis and Deputy Mayor Jack Contin as the yays.

“When I watched budget deliberations last year, I guess the new hires in 2022 – and there were quite a few of them – they weren’t really outlined in the budget and I know now that it’s not itemized,” explained Meridis, further noting that a freeze would be an initiative to “get the tax at a good point” prior to the 2023 budget discussions in January.

CAO David Denault, who holds an extensive background in customer service, acknowledged the intent by Meridis but spoke to the problems such a motion would face.

“It is a sort of last-resort tactic that you would use if your budget is being threatened,” said Denault. “That certainly isn’t the case in Midland.”

The CAO referred to a year-end report within the agenda which noted a 1.6 million surplus in 2021 with upward of $3 million over recent years, to achieve savings from a council-authorized budget which he assured staff did not spend in full.

“Staffing isn’t the problem, staffing is the solution from my perspective,” Denault added.

As Mayor Bill Gordon let the discussion escalate back and forth, Meridis revealed he felt the budget was inflated; his own background as a long-time business owner shining brightly.

Regarding the supposed budget inflation and reported savings, Meridis stated, “These are the questions that I have hiring new people. I’ve been here all my life, this isn’t the same service level as it was 10 years ago. We have more staff now than ever.”

Denault immediately countered, “We have less people then were probably employed in 2012; we have that data.

“Because staff agreed to implement staffing over a time-frame that would allow savings to occur – they committed those savings to staff, they in effect implemented their own kind of hiring freeze – $400,000, each of those two years, $800,000 in savings. And now we want to come to them at the end of the year and hit them again. I honestly don’t think that’s fair.”

He assured Meridis that the town wasn’t overstaffed, and met the challenge by saying he’d prove it during budget talks. Denault added, “I think this is a horrible first motion for this council to bring forward.”

Other council members weighed in; Coun. Sheldon East said a hiring freeze could impact the town during an emergency and if it happened during a snowstorm when plows couldn’t get out for street-clearing, “Midland is going to hate us.”

Coun. Jim Downer said he couldn’t support the motion, and reinforced “full confidence in our administration” to serve their role; Jamie-Lee Ball asked and was satisfied that the hiring of a senior-level position was being placed on hold through the wage gap explained by Denault; and Contin supported Meridis in wanting clarification of the organization chart to understand the full roles within the departments.

Environment and infrastructure director Andy Campbell pointed out other municipal impacts a freeze would initiate.

“Sometimes there’s unintended consequences to decisions like this,” said Campbell, “one being that we won’t be able to apply for any of our grants for students and we have to make that submission on January 12. If there’s a hiring freeze in place, we won’t be able to apply for any grants for students.”

Even Gordon admitted that he had chased after a hiring freeze in his time on the previous council, but felt that the motion by Meridis was too close to the upcoming budget.

“I’m probably disinclined to support this motion only because it’s imminent,” said Gordon. “Tomorrow we get the link to the budget; we are a month away.”

A recorded vote took place and was defeated 2-7. However, Gordon was the one to raise the spirits and cool the room with a laugh immediately after.

“We’re really getting the full gamut here, recorded votes and all,” said Gordon to the full extent of the lengthy regular meeting.

“I think this is setting the tone, for everyone watching, on what we’re in for this term – which is really good debate, thoughtful motions, thoughtful consideration, and definitely working together to work through the issues.”

Gordon added that he was looking forward to budget talks, which he said were going to be fun.

The hiring freeze motion, as well as the 2021 year-over-year report, is available in full in the council agenda on the Town of Midland website.

Further information on the upcoming 2023 budget, including the released budget document, is available on the Town of Midland website.

Council meetings are held every third Wednesday, and can be attended virtually through Zoom by contacting the clerk’s department of Midland town hall for a link to the meeting.

Council meetings can also be viewed on Rogers TV cable channel 53, or through the livestream on the Rogers TV website. Archives of council meetings are available through Rogers TV and on the Town of Midland’s YouTube channel.

Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, MidlandToday.ca