Friday, May 16, 2008

Not just a raise in pay; but endless days of Swim and Play!

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”— Napoleon, from George Orwell’s Animal Farm

“It was why them, and not us!?”— Michael Curnes, City of Prince Rupert director of recreation and community services, explaining the genesis of the complimentary recreation centre pass program for all civic workers

It’s been a good couple of weeks to be a city worker as the City of Prince Rupert in addition to coming to terms on a new five year labour agreement has also throw in the added bonus of free trips to the city’s recreation facilities.

In a surprising development for a still struggling and cash strapped town, Prince Rupert City council approved a plan to provide all city workers with complimentary passes to the Earl Mah Aquatic Centre and the Jim Ciccone Civic Centre, designed to promote a healthier lifestyle for those that work the daily grind of civic employment. The move apparently will patch over some hard feelings on the city worker side over the current arrangement which sees the city’s firefighters and RCMP officers provided with the complimentary passes.

Interestingly enough, the decision wasn’t made public during the recent contract negotiations (neither at the time was the progress and issues around those contract negotiations), nor was the subject up for discussion during the tax increase debates of the last few weeks, but rather the decision was announced and voted on in the same night, that after the city had approved yet another tax increase for the city’s residents of 4 per cent for this tax year.

Considering the buzzword during the last election was to be transparent and open, the kind of oh, by the way, announcement of the plan doesn’t seem to fit in with the much declared intentions to hold up to that standard of the last election campaign.

Only councilor Ken Cote seemed to realize the poor optics of the day, as he was the only member of council to vote against the plan. It’s a vote that seems to put him on the other side of the aisle of those that seem a tad out of touch with the feelings of the taxpayers of the city these days.

While most residents probably wouldn’t object to their city workers receiving a discount to the Civic Centre and Earl Mah facilities (much like those who work in private enterprise benefit from a staff discount), or perhaps even have the union and the city split the difference on the wellness initiative through a payroll deduction plan.
But in an era of spiraling taxation and a declining tax base, those that are left in town and on the hook to finance all of the city’s human resources and healthy lifestyle initiatives might be a little upset.

It’s an ironic twist that may find some of the city’s taxpayers subsidizing their civic employees to take advantage of those fine civic centre facilities, while they themselves probably can’t afford to pay the fees required for those that aren’t civic workers.

We suspect that there may be a wee backlash on this idea, and that the issue may come up in front of council a few more times before November’s election comes around…

Council members may wish to invest in some asbestos garments, as it could prove to be one of the hotter issues to come along in a year that has provided no shortage of head shaking decisions from the city’s governing circle.

The Daily News featured details of the plan in Thursday’s paper.

City staff to get free access to recreation facilities
By Patrick Witwicki
The Daily News
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Pages one and two

The City of Prince Rupert introduced a new City Employee Wellness Program policy at Monday night's council meeting, meaning all full-time city employees will get to use its recreation facilities for free.

They join an elite group alongside RCMP members and firefighters, who now have free access to all the recreational facilities, including the Russell Gamble Gymnasium and the Earl Mah Aqauatic Centre.

Instructional paid-for programs, like pilates, are not included.

The move was about making city staff healthier, and would add benefits such as reduced WCB claims due to health, and also enable the city to attract and keep employees, said Michael Curnes, director of recreation and community services.

"It is making a difference," he said.

“We still need a lot of adult mentors.”

But Coun. Ken Cote was not pleased with the proposal.

He believes it gives the perception that the city is showing favouritism to the “elite” working class of Prince Rupert wile others in this town cannot afford to attend the gym, even one night of the week.

“I understand your intent, but I’m having trouble with it,” said Cote.

“Why wouldn’t we just offer it to all the citizens of Prince Rupert?”

Curnes said that option just wasn’t feasible , and he said that the fact that the employees would still have to pay for all of the recreation department programs alleviates the cost of giving 107 full-time employees complete complimentary access to the facility.

“If we were an utopian society, maybe we could do that, but we’re just offering this as an employee wellness program,” said Curnes.

Coun. Tony Briglio said that if there were other people in town who worked for other businesses or corporations, that they should be pushing for some type of wellness program as well. He also suggested that it would be a wise decision for businesses to offer such programs because they keep employees happy and also help attracts potential workers to Rupert.

“What we’re really talking about here, is we’re going to keep the employees healthier,” he said. “It speaks well for the City of Prince Rupert that this is about how we treat our employees, and you would think this will save us money over the years (in WCB claims)

But Cote still didn’t think the policy was fair.

“This policy just makes us look like Cold War Russia, where full-time workers get all the benefits, and the taxpayers pay for it,” he said. “The facility is run by our taxpayers, many who work part-time and have a couple of children. They’re living on a scrape-by wage, and they’re having a lot of trouble paying for this.

“Everyone pays for that facility, but only a select group gets to use it.”

Coun. Joy Thorkelson seemed to be riding the fence during the debate and suggested council put the initiative in effect for one year to see how things go, and then reopen the debate.

“I believe that employees should have the best,” she said. “I believe in more medical benefits, wage increases.. nothing is too good for the working class, and I think we should promote health.

“On the other hand, I spoke to the firefighters, and they said they feel uneasy about what the community was saying, so some are using it, but many aren’t.”

She added that it would be diligent to ask if the workers want this benefit, or if they would prefer not to have it.

“If the workers want this, all employers should be giving their employees time for health,” she said. “Because if they don’t want it, all we’ve created is bad feeling between city workers and the public.”

Curnes said that the main reason both the RCMP and firefighters felt uncomfortable was for that exact reason – the city workers felt they were being left out.

“It was why them, and not us!?” he said “This does equalize it”

Coun. Briglio requested that council strike the sentence in the report that read “upon retirement, will be issued a lifetime pass,” because it could cause further grief in the community, especially if a full-time worker, for example, has only lived in Rupert for two years, while others may have toiled for more than 30 years.

“This would be opening a can of worms,” he said.

Cote added: “I don’t get a pension and I’m close to retirement, and I can choose to jump up and down and do calisthenics, and I’ll be just fine.”

In the end, council approved the report with the amendments to the retirement clause, and to Thorkelson’s suggestion that the report get reopened after one year.

Cote voted against, but the motion went through 5-1.

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