Wednesday, August 20, 2008

City coping with rising fuel costs

Spending at Timmins City hall is on track at the halfway point through the year, but city treasurer Bernie Christian told city council this week that fuel prices could be $300,000 to $400,000 over budget -- but that the cost overruns could be absorbed. That news didn’t go over as well as it might.
City councillor Bill Gvozdanovic said he found the treasurer’s report surprising and confusing.
“I can’t understand how we can say we can be in line with the budget when we anticipate our fuel costs are going to be three to four hundred thousand dollars over… that’s a one per cent tax increase.”
He then asked Christian how it could be possible to find room to have that increase absorbed into various city budgets.
“All departments are cutting back,” Christian explained. “ Some items, maybe they can do without until next year…they’re going to make do.”
Gvozdanovic said he was concerned that so much money was being cut by administration without input from members of city council.
“If there’s items being cut by administration then that has to come back to council,” Gvozdanovic declared.
“We approved the budget for 2008 and we spent all that time in budget meetings, okay, and then all of a sudden we’re talking about a three or four hundred thousand dollar increase in fuel, and you guys turn around and say ‘we’ll be okay’,” he said.
“To me it sends a message that there’s three or four hundred thousand dollars that’s either been cut somewhere that we don’t know about,” Gvozdanovic added.
Mayor Tom Laughren suggested that the city’s administration was merely letting council there was a problem with fuel costs and was taking steps to adjust for it.
“And I would think that’s the prudent thing to do,” the mayor said.
“Well you know what your worship, I disagree 100 per cent with that,” said Gvozdanovic.
City administrator Joe Torlone told council that the savings of $300,000 to $400,000 is not coming from one or two major projects.
“We shave a little bit here, we shave a little be there,” Torlone told the councillors.
“It could be the sum of a hundred different initiatives,” Torlone explained, adding that if council wishes, he can bring in every last dollar-saving document.
He added that each department was looking at savings, but no important items or programs were being cut. “It might be one less trip for training, or something like that,” Torlone said.
City engineer Luc Duval explained that the city’s road paving budget will allow his department to save upwards of $200,000 because the roads budget was big enough it had a bit of “cushion” in it to absorb extra costs.
Duval said the intention of his department was to apply any leftover funds to major road patching work such as the Kamiskotia Highway. He added that public works employees have contributed to many costs savings. As an example, Duval said city workers who go to work in the Kamiskotia area can now take advantage of portable toilets, so they don’t have to come back to the shop for lunch.
That statement surprised some city councillors.
“I can’t understand that if you’re working at Kamiskotia and you have to go to the washroom, or for lunch, that people would drive all the way back to the shop… is that because there’s no washroom facility out there?” asked Gvozdanovic.
Public works supervisor Chris Bazinet admitted that was the situation “at one time”.
“Okay, so at one point in time when they started the job and they were working at Kamiskotia, all the trucks would come back for lunch?,” asked Gvozdanovic.
“Yes,” said Bazinet.
“That’s like a half an hour drive here, half an hour for lunch…you’re losing two hours of production…”
“That was past practice, yes,” said Bazinet.
Bazinet said once the issue was identified as a problem, the issue was resolved.
“The employees at public works know when they’re wasting money… and they don’t necessarily like it,” said Bazinet adding that when changes are brought in to make things better, “you really get a positive response.”
City councillor Denis Saudino was also surprised at the information about Kamiskotia…
“My one question is on this thing about coming back for lunch from Kamiskotia, can you believe, what… what took so long?” asked Saudino.
“Sorry, if I may interject, I don’t believe that was standard practice all the time,” said city administrator Joe Torlone.
“I think we’re carrying this a bit too far, I don’t think it’s an everyday occurrence,” said Torlone.
City Engineer Luc Duval suggested that of the hundreds of activities carried out by public works, most are done well, and that the Kamiskotia lunch break was mentioned only to show that things are being improved on.
Among other spending considerations at the halfway point in the city’s budget, hydro costs are at 56.5 per cent. This is a drop from the same time last year, when hydro costs were at 59.8 per cent.
Natural gas costs at the halfway mark were at 60.1 per cent, which compares with 68.2 per cent at the same time last year.
Wages and benefits for city workers were pegged at 48.7 per cent of the budget, even though 50 per cent of the payroll had been processed.

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